Pakistan draws a bead on Baitullah
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - He is reclusive like Taliban leader Mullah Omar and popular like al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, and he pledges his allegiance to both. This is Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, whom the Pakistani security agencies have tried their best to engage, but he remains defiant, so much so that he is even suspected of being an agent for India's Research and Analysis intelligence agency. Baitullah, who operates in the South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan, has frequently fallen out with the Afghan Taliban for directing his jihadis against the Pakistani security forces rather than sending them to Afghanistan. Initially, this pleased American and European intelligence agencies as he turned the tide from the Afghan battlefield to Pakistan. But now Baitullah is viewed with extreme suspicion as he has proved to be a man who always achieves what he sets out to do, and jihadis from around the world are flooding into his camps to be trained for global jihad. This in turn has allayed the fears of the Afghan Taliban, who realize they will be ensured a smooth supply of fighters to Afghanistan. For these reasons, Baitullah is now a marked man. Over the past few months, Pakistani security agencies and coalition leaders from Afghanistan have shared intelligence in an attempt to track down Baitullah and pinpoint where he gets his resources, but he remains elusive. All the same, this has not diminished his effectiveness. Last week, for instance, security forces were sent to the Hangu district of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) after the government announced it was reneging on peace deals and launching an all-out offensive against militants in NWFP. Mehsud called a meeting in South Waziristan of all powerful commanders from the Pakistani tribal agencies and announced that the minute any attack was mounted anywhere against militants, offensives would be launched against the Pakistani security forces in the tribal areas as well as on the federal capital, Islamabad, and on the leadership and allies of the leading party in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People's Party. Further, President Pervez Musharraf and his associates and anyone connected with the storming in Islamabad last year of the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), which was pro-Taliban, would also be targeted. Subsequently, the Pakistani security agencies advised the government to immediately withdraw the forces. The reasoning was that Pakistan could withstand pressure from the United States to act against militants, but it could not win a showdown with Baitullah. A high-level meeting presided over by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed. The problem now is to hunt down Baitullah, who is also wanted in connection with the assassination last year of former premier Benazir Bhutto and other attacks. Using Baitullah's differences with some regional commanders - Baitullah comes from the Mehsud, one of the four sub-tribes of the Waziri - Pakistan tried to erect a web of opposition around him, but none survived. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also tried to sow seeds of enmity against Baitullah, without success. Haji Omar, once a powerful chief of the Taliban in South Waziristan and also a Wazir, tried to challenge Baitullah's command, but he now lives in exile in North Waziristan, without forces or resources. Haji Nazeer, another Wazir, who runs the biggest Pakistani Taliban fighting network in Afghanistan, also tried to confront Baitullah, at the behest of the security forces, but he failed. Last month, Baitullah drove out all tribes related to Haji Nazeer from South Waziristan. Now that Baitullah is unchallenged in South Waziristan, he aims to broaden his network. He has raised his presence in neighboring North Waziristan and the biggest network of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani faction, has no choice but to side with Baitullah. The Swat Valley's Mullah Fazlullah has also announced Baitullah as his chief mentor, and after wiping out the ISI-backed Shah group from Mohmand Agency, Baitullah's men are calling the shots in Orakzai Agency, Mohamand Agency and Darra Adam Khail in NWFP. With each consolidation of Baitullah's power, Islamabad, along with its Western allies, becomes all the more convinced that he has to be eliminated, otherwise there can never be any sustained military operations against militants in the tribal areas. His demise would also lead to the disintegration of the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's networks in the tribal areas, leaving only weakened stand-alone outfits. Baitullah is well aware that he is now public enemy number one. A senior Pakistani affiliate of al-Qaeda, now close to Baitullah, told Asia Times Online, "It is not Baitullah Mehsud's style to hide when people sniff around him. He will open the floodgates of offensives and if there is a conspiracy between Islamabad and the political and military leadership, they will taste Baitullah's response."
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org