BaitUllah Mehsud is Dead
IT WAS around 1am on Wednesday and Pakistan’s most wanted man had taken the risk of spending the night at the house of a close relative. A diabetic, Baitullah Mehsud, commander of Pakistan’s biggest Taliban group, had been feeling poorly in the scorching summer heat of Waziristan and the local doctor called round to give him a glucose drip.
As he lay on a couch on the roof tended by his new wife, somewhere high up in the clear starry sky a distant unmanned plane was hovering, invisible to the naked eye. Its cameras locked in on him, a command was given thousands of miles away in the Nevada desert, and two Hellfire missiles tore into the mud-walled building.
Afterwards a Pakistani intelligence officer based in the nearest town, Makeen, said Mehsud’s torso had been “totally damaged except for his head”.
In the end it may have been the desire for a son that led to the Taliban leader’s demise. The 35-year-old had four daughters by his first wife but, in the tribal lands of Waziristan, it is only the birth of a boy that is greeted by rifle fire and jubilation. Last November Mehsud took a second wife, the daughter of an influential local cleric. He was spending the night with her at her father’s house in the village of Zangarha when the missiles hit.
Initial reports suggested only Mehsud’s wife and two of his fighters had been killed. But suspicions were raised when a large funeral was held the next day in the nearby village of Narghasi — under local tradition bodies must be buried by sunrise the following day.
“Our information is that Mehsud, his wife and seven guards were killed,” Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said yesterday. “But we’re still waiting for material evidence to confirm it totally.”
He said security had been stepped up in cities across Pakistan in fear of retaliation: “We are expecting some kind of revenge attack and are taking precautions.”
A Taliban spokesman said a council was under way to choose a new leader, although yesterday two other spokesmen dismissed the reports, claiming Mehsud was still alive. Last night a gun battle erupted between Mufti Wali Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud, two of the rivals to succeed Mehsud. The Pakistan government reported that one of them was killed in the shootout. Local media claimed later that both men had been killed in an exchange of fire.
If Mehsud’s death is confirmed it will be the biggest success yet scored by the CIA’s pilotless drones. He had spread terror throughout Pakistan, killing hundreds of people in suicide bombings. His targets included the main hotels in Islamabad and Peshawar, as well as police and army barracks in Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi. He was described by the Pakistani government as the “mother of all evils”.
He was also blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, in December 2007, although he denied it. In March this year the US State Department placed a $5m bounty on his head. Yet only a few years ago Mehsud was unheard of. One western ambassador who finished his tour in Pakistan in 2006 said he had never heard his name.
Short, rather overweight and softly spoken, only his long black hair gave him the warrior image he cultivated. He trained as a body builder and fought with the Taliban in the 1990s as they swept into Kabul. He emerged as a Taliban leader after 2004, when Pakistani forces went into the tribal areas to hunt Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who had taken sanctuary in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. A group of tribesmen, under the command of Nek Muhammad, fought back; the army retaliated by demolishing their homes.
When Nek Muhammad was killed by a US Predator drone, he was initially replaced by Abdullah Mehsud, who had been released from imprisonment by the Americans at Guantanamo. Soon Baitullah prevailed over his rival. By February 2005 he had signed a peace deal with the Pakistan army which ended the fighting.
The army withdrew from the areas controlled by Mehsud in return for his agreement not to harbour foreign militants or attack government officials. He took the opportunity to consolidate his power base. By the time the deal collapsed in 2007 he had reorganised his militia, now thought to number between 10,000 and 20,000 men.
The government’s decision to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007 brought him more recruits and the following month he humiliated the army by kidnapping more than 200 soldiers. They were held for three months and released in exchange for 25 Taliban prisoners, except for three Shi’ite soldiers who he had beheaded on video.
He was the obvious choice to head a coalition, the Taliban Movement of Pakistan (TTP). Its stated aim was the overthrow of Pakistan’s government and its focus was Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. But Mehsud’s men caused considerable nuisance for Nato troops in Afghanistan by launching repeated attacks on their supply trucks heading through the Khyber Pass.
Al-Qaeda used his territory as a sanctuary. Pakistani officials say between 1,000 and 1,200 Uzbek and Chechen fighters live in Waziristan. Mehsud used Al-Qaeda know-how to set up training camps, including indoctrinating suicide bombers, a weapon he once called his own atom bombs.
Many believe he must have had assistance from within the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), which has had close links with militants since the 1980s. “He was originally supported by the military and ISI,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military analyst. “But he had begun to bite the hand that fed him. His death is a very powerful signal to them all.”
Pakistan began to send troops into South Waziristan in June, although a full-scale offensive was not expected until the end of this month. The government hopes that by then it will have re-established control further east in the mountain valleys of Swat, where the army has been fighting since April against another Taliban group under the leadership of Maulana Fazlullah.
The government said yesterday that this operation would continue despite Mehsud’s death. “We’re not stopping our action,” said Malik. “If Baitullah is dead his forces will be demoralised but someone will replace him. The question is: who are the handlers for these stooges, who is giving them ammo and arms and vehicles?”
Perhaps the biggest achievement of this week’s drone attack is a new sense of trust between Washington and Islamabad. When Barack Obama took office in January this had hit rock bottom over Pakistan’s continuing sanctuary for Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and his supporters. So bad had things got that a senior US official said in April: “Looking back I don’t think I have ever been told the truth by a Pakistani official.”
Pakistan’s operation to clear militants from Swat suggested a new commitment. “If Mehsud’s death is confirmed this should go a long way to reassuring Pakistanis and Americans that both are determined to fight enemies that threaten the security of our countries,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.
Just as Washington feels Pakistan is interested only in militants that threaten its own territory, Islamabad has complained that America launches drone attacks only on Al-Qaeda suspects, not on the Pakistani Taliban. Officials claimed they had twice provided intelligence of Mehsud’s whereabouts to US officials but it was not acted on.
In the past three months this has changed dramatically. Mehsud was almost hit in June when his village was targeted for the first time. According to intelligence officials, of the 32 US strikes carried out in Pakistan this year, at least 19 have been in South Waziristan.
The Obama administration will now want something in return. It hopes that Pakistan will clamp down on the Afghan Taliban based in Quetta as well as the network of the notorious Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, based in North Waziristan, which recently seized an American soldier.
The TTP is choosing a new leader. All three main contenders are hardliners. The favourites are Hakimullah Mehsud, who masterminded attacks on Nato supply trucks, Mufti Wali Rehman and Maulana Azmatullah, although both of them may now be dead. Whoever succeeds is likely to be less skilled at maintaining tribal alliances.
“There are many potential successors who can easily replace him,” said M J Gohel, director of the Asia Pacific Foundation, a counter-terrorism think tank based in London.
Source:The Times on Line