Baitullah: Dead or alive, his battle rages
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and United States officials are scrambling to verify reports that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US Predator drone attack in the South Waziristan tribal area on Wednesday.
"Our assertion is that Baitullah Mehsud is dead, based on the intelligence inputs provided to us. However, we will go for ground verification to 200% confirm that he has been killed in the air strike," Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on Friday.
The TTP was reported by some news channels as confirming the death of Baitullah and his second wife in the August 5 drone strike. According to these reports, the TTP said Baitullah's funeral had already been held and that his successor would be named on Friday.
A Mehsud jirga (council) meeting in the capital Islamabad has not commented on the reports, but Baitullah's biggest rival in South Waziristan, Haji Turkestan Bhitni, says Baitullah, who has a US$5 million bounty on his head, is dead.
Baitullah, in his mid-thirties, has been linked to a series of attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007.
If Baitullah is dead, it would be a massive blow to the Taliban as he has been a major binding force between al-Qaeda, Pakistani militants, tribal militants and the Afghan Taliban, especially in Helmand province.
The Taliban would be hard-pressed to find a replacement for him as he was the perfect successor in a long line of Taliban chiefs. These include Nek Mohammad (killed in an air strike by American forces in South Waziristan in June 2004) and Abdullah Mehsud (killed in a shootout with security forces in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province in June 2005).
Over the past few years, the small, diabetic yet hugely charismatic Baitullah has established himself and his TTP, a militant umbrella group primarily in conflict with the central government, in South Waziristan and beyond. Many view him as a bigger threat than al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
After the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan following the US invasion in late 2001, all of the powerful Arab commanders who had been in the country made for South Waziristan just across the border. They immediately set about using their money and ideology to rear a new generation of ideological allies. It took a few years to achieve this, but the results were obvious, from Nek Mohammad to Abdullah Mehsud to Baitullah Mehsud.
Baitullah began as a poor foot soldier in the Taliban's rag-tag army in Afghanistan. He is the son of a minor cleric but dropped out of a madrassa (Islamic seminary).
Arabs such as the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Khalid Habib, and al-Qaeda's best trainer, Abu Laith al-Libbi, took the ambitious Baitullah under their wing, showering him with off-road vehicles and loads of weapons. And importantly, Qari Tahir Yuldashev, the chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, placed his 2,500 hardened fighters at Baitullah's discretion. Baitullah lived with the Uzbek, who became his biggest ideological inspiration.
A military crackdown against Pakistani jihadi outfits after the 2002 failed assassination attempt on then-president General Pervez Musharraf caused an exodus of militants to the tribal areas. Prominent among them were leading jihadi Qari Zafar and veteran Kashmiri guerrilla commander Ilyas Kashmiri.
They were all given protection by Baitullah, along with famed Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, and Baitullah was on his way to becoming one of the most influential people in the region.
By 2007, Baitullah was sending hundreds of groups of men a year into Helmand, making him the number one contributor in fueling the Taliban-led insurgency against foreign forces in southwestern Afghanistan. He also provided suicide bombers for al-Qaeda's missions in Pakistan and generated funds by using his tribal bandits.
If Baitullah is dead, his successor would inherit a far bigger empire than the one Baitullah took over as Pakistani Taliban chief. The new man would also face the likelihood of a showdown against the Pakistani military, which in recent months has been preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan, as well as arming Baitullah's rival tribal militias.
The present United States Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, came up with the idea of arming tribal militias and using them against foreign al-Qaeda elements in Iraq in 2007. That Iraqi experience sparked the imagination of the seasoned British ambassador in Kabul in 2007, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, and he tried the same idea with arbakai - volunteers who answer the call of their tribal elders to protect their villages. It failed.
Similarly, the Pakistani security apparatus has begun arming militias to defeat the Taliban. However, they have fatefully pitched one tribe against the other and instead of a Taliban defeat, the specter of inter-tribal war looms.
In the event of Baitullah's killing, tribal rival Haji Turkestan Bhitni would be the immediate beneficiary; the Taliban and al-Qaeda will carry on as before.
A capital gathering
For the past five days, members of the Mehsud tribe have gathered in Islamabad to develop a consensus on a joint strategy for peace in the restive tribal areas. They aim to meet with top military officials and the prime minister in an attempt to persuade them that their current approach is wrong, whether Baitullah is dead or alive.
Members at the jirga include a former member of parliament, an incumbent member of the senate, tribal elders, traders and businessmen now living as diaspora across the country.
Haji Mohammad Khan Mehsud is the son of Nawaz Khan Mehsud, who was killed by militants in 2004 (before Baitullah's emergence) as part of their campaign to reduce the influence of tribal elders. His native town is Makeen in South Waziristan, also the home of Baitullah. He spoke to Asia Times Online.
"We are not with Baitullah Mehsud and we do not support him. We do not understand this military operation which targets everybody except the real target," Haji Mohammad Khan said in anguish.
"Haji Turkestan Bhitni comes from our area [South Waziristan]. He is the new guide for the military in the region, like Baitullah used to be. Now Turkestan's people are settling their scores against every Mehsud. They lead the military to any home of the Mehsud people, in Tank and in Dera Ismail Khan, and then raids are conducted.
"We have told military officials many times that had we been with Baitullah, we would not be living as refugees in different cities. But the officials do not take heed of our requests. Target[ed] killings of our young boys is another element in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank by the Bhitni tribe, which is armed by the Pakistan army. I ask the authorities, who benefits from this policy? Of course, our disillusioned boys will join Baitullah," Haji Mohammad Khan said.
The Pakistan army has beefed up its presence all around North Waziristan and South Waziristan and the cities adjacent to the tribal areas. A ground operation has been pending for several weeks, although the Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations denies any plans for action in the near future in South Waziristan. The Pakistan army would face extremely difficult terrain there and very hostile Taliban factions which have unexpectedly set aside tribal differences and feuds to present a united front.
In response to this the army has begun arming militias to pitch them against the Mehsud tribe, headed by Baitullah, who has broken the tribal system and turned it into a virtual militant gang which generates money through robberies and kidnappings all over Pakistan, in addition to suicide attacks.
Recently, the Pakistani security forces carried out an extra-judicial killing of five Mehsud tribesmen and their bodies were sent to South Waziristan with a message to Baitullah that the "more you defy us, the more you will collect the bodies of your tribal men".
Such deeds would never frighten Baitullah, and he quickly exterminates anyone who stands up against him - most recently, Qari Zainuddin Mehsud was assassinated.
Asia Times Online asked engineer-turned-industrialist Haji Mannan Mehsud why the Mehsud tribe had not taken internal action against Baitullah Mehsud's group.
"Because the government has puzzling policies and they did not support us," said Haji Mannan, who in 1995 invested 40 million rupees (US$1 million then) in South Waziristan to establish a clarified butter plant. In 2008, the factory was demolished by the army on the pretext of security arrangements. He was not yet been compensated.
Haji Mannan continued, "Before 1999, there was no army to safeguard the borders. It was not required. The tribes were the vanguard of the Pakistani border regions. When in 2000-01 the army came to our areas, the tribesmen actually assisted them and provided them all the logistics [they needed]. Baitullah Mehsud was also their guide, even after 9/11.
"Now the situation has changed and he is accused of being an American agent or an Indian agent. At no time were the tribal elders consulted regarding Baitullah Mehsud, and now our government is arming rival tribes and helping with the massacre of Mehsud's [tribe], whether they are with Baitullah or not," Haji Mannan said.
Commenting on the jirga, Senator Saleh Shah told Asia Times Online that nothing had yet been decided and that once it was, the media would be told.
Soon, too, it will emerge whether or not Baitullah Mehsud has been struck down by a predator missile; if he has, a new chapter will open in the troubled tribal regions of Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. Baitullah's legacy, though, would ensure that the Pakistani Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies continued his battles.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com