Taliban leader flaunts power inside Pakistan

Posted in Terrorism , Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 02-Jun-08 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, center with his back to the camera. Even Peshawar is threatened by the Taliban, the police say.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: With great fanfare, the Pakistani Army flew journalists to a rugged corner of the nation's lawless tribal areas in May to show how decisively it had destroyed the lairs of the Taliban, including a school for suicide bombers, in fighting early this year.

Then, just days later, the usually reclusive leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, held a news conference of his own, in the same region, to show just who was in charge.

He rolled up in an expensive-looking Toyota pickup packed with heavily armed Taliban fighters, according to the Pakistani journalists invited to attend. Squatting on the floor of a government school, Mehsud, clasping a new Kalashnikov, announced he would press his fight against the American military across the border in Afghanistan.

"Islam does not recognize boundaries," he told the journalists, in accounts published in Pakistani newspapers and reported by the BBC. "There can be no deal with the United States."

Mehsud's jaunty appearance in his home base, South Waziristan, a particularly unruly region of Pakistan's tribal areas, underscored the wide latitude Pakistan's government has granted the militants under a new series of peace deals, and its impact in Afghanistan, where NATO and American commanders say cross-border attacks have surged since talks for those peace deals began in March.

The impunity of Mehsud's behavior has outraged the Bush administration, which is pressing the Pakistani government to arrest and prosecute him.

"Bringing Baitullah Mehsud, the head of this extremist group in South Waziristan ? capturing him and bringing him to justice, which is what should happen to him," is what the United States wants from Pakistan, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said last month in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But the Pakistani government, which at times has considered Mehsud an ally and is now fearful of his power, appears reluctant to hunt him down. Days before his news conference, Pakistani forces pulled back from his realm in South Waziristan as part of the peace deals.

American and Pakistani officials accuse Mehsud of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, in December and sending scores of suicide bombers here and in Afghanistan, while forging a symbiotic relationship with Al Qaeda on Pakistan's frontier.

Interviews with former military officials and government officials, local residents and a former Taliban member who worked in proximity to Mehsud's inner circle portrayed him as a militant leader who is barely educated, attracts more knowledgeable people to his side and is ruthless in his goal of an extreme form of Islamic rule.

He and his main ally, Qari Hussain, whom officials and associates have described as a highly trained and vicious militant, have methodically built up strongholds in North and South Waziristan ? killing uncooperative tribal leaders, recruiting unemployed young men to their jihad and filling the vacuum left by a lack of government services. Now, they also have lieutenants and allies across the tribal region.

In South Waziristan, they run training camps for suicide bombers, some of them children, according to the former Taliban member. Their realm is so secure that in April Mehsud's umbrella group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, held a conference of thousands of fighters that culminated in a public execution, according to a local resident.

Local Pakistani authorities say they are helpless to deal with Mehsud's group. In a measure of their despair, on Wednesday the authorities in the Mohmand district, where the conference and public execution were held, announced a truce with the Taliban.

Mehsud was once a minor figure in the small Shabikhel branch of the fierce Mehsud tribe that lives in South Waziristan, whose inhospitable territory remained a sliver of imperial India left unconquered by the British.

But he managed to enhance his stature through the ambivalence ? or protection, according to some officials ? of the Pakistani authorities, say former Pakistani military officials and tribal leaders. His strength grew quickly after February 2005, when the military, then under the control of President Pervez Musharraf, signed a peace deal with him.

"That was when I knew the army was not serious," said a tribal leader who has dealt with Mehsud and would not be named for safety reasons. "If the army took firm action they could crush him in two months."

Instead, the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the overarching Pakistani intelligence agency, wanted to keep Mehsud "in reserve," said the tribal leader, who is also a former military officer.

In essence, the Pakistani authorities stuck to a long-standing policy of "strategic depth" in Afghanistan as a bulwark against its enemy India, and Mehsud was a tool in that game, he said.

A retired brigadier, Mehmood Shah, said the 2005 peace deal amounted to a total "surrender" to Mehsud, from which he had advanced virtually unhindered. Against his advice, Shah said, army checkpoints in key areas of Mehsud territory ? in particular, the Makin bazaar, a favored Taliban hangout, and the strategic Karama mountain range ? were abandoned after the 2005 agreement.

During the January offensive against Mehsud, he hid among the civilians around the Makin bazaar, using them as shields and making it tricky to capture him, said Major General Athar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army.

Much of Mehsud's strength lies in his alliance with Hussain, a militant groomed in the anti-Shiite group Laskar Jhangvi. Hussain, who turned up to greet the journalists, is younger than Mehsud and more confident. He belongs to the more prominent Behlolzi clan of the Mehsud tribe, Shah said.

Hussain organized the training schools for suicide bombers and a production site for making violent propaganda DVDs designed to encourage young men to join the cause of jihad, the former Taliban member said in an interview.

Introduced to The New York Times by an intermediary who vouched for his credibility, the former Taliban member, in his early 20s, could not be named for fear of retaliation.

Not all of what the former Taliban member said could be independently corroborated. Major points of his account conformed with public events and with details provided, separately, by former military and civilian officials.

He said he had worked in the propaganda wing of Mehsud's cohort from May 2006 to May 2007, and left after Hussain ordered the killing of eight of his relatives in a dispute. But he remained on friendly terms. "Baitullah Mehsud is nothing without Qari Hussain," he said.

He described Hussain as a kind of enforcer, a deputy to Mehsud who would order killings of tribesmen and often personally slit a person's throat. Fighters traveling to or from Afghanistan usually consulted with Hussain first, he added.

Hussain ran the school for suicide bombers where he would indoctrinate boys as young as 10, the former Taliban member said. "He called every child by his name, and talked to him about life in the next world," he said.

By the time the army began its assault on the Mehsud forces in South Waziristan in January, the results of which it showed off to journalists on the tour in May, Hussain was one step ahead of them, the former Taliban member said. Hussain had already moved the suicide bombing school to North Waziristan, he said. There, he said, Mehsud and Hussain enjoyed the protection of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a leader of the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan who has ties to Al Qaeda, according to American intelligence officials.

The relationship between Mehsud and Al Qaeda was secretive, with Al Qaeda the dominant partner that treated the Taliban as supplicants, the former Taliban member said.

He described Al Qaeda as "the Arabs" who would help the Taliban in South Waziristan with military training. Taliban who wanted the training would be blindfolded so they would not know where they were going, he said.

In recent months, Mehsud's deputies have become entrenched in the tribal areas far from South Waziristan. Another deputy of Mehsud's, Fakir Mohammed, is in control of much of Bajaur Agency, the northern-most point of the tribal region, according to officials in Peshawar.

In the Khyber region, a transit route for NATO fuel convoys bound for Afghanistan from Karachi, Mehsud's allies have organized tribal killings.

The spread of the Pakistani Taliban threatens even Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province bordering the tribal areas, the inspector general of police, Malik Naveed Khan, warned.

"They are now on the periphery," Khan said in an interview. If nothing is done, it could be "a matter of months" before Peshawar falls, he said.

To woo young men away from the Taliban, he wants to create a broad "conservation corps" to employ 300,000 men ? approximately one from every family ? to build roads and bridges in the impoverished tribal region. The men would get a stipend to counter the generous 13,000 rupees (about $200) the Taliban pay some members each month.

"The economic effect will be immediate," said Khan, who says he is impatient with a slow-moving $750 million five-year American aid program that began a few months ago. He recites his ideas to the many American development experts who come through his door offering to help.

The Americans all say about his employment plan, modeled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s: " 'We are thinking about it,' " he said. "I say: 'Don't think about it, do it.' "