The death of the head of the Taliban in Pakistan appears to have confused the insurgency as much as it has the rest of the world.
In May last year, in a schoolroom in the village of Kotkai in South Waziristan, a member of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) named Qari Hussain, a man who trains potential suicide bombers, patted an Arabic-language television reporter on his back, telling him, “Please wrap up the interview – there is danger coming.” But the man being interviewed merely gestured with his left hand to let the interview continue, all the while holding a small automatic assault rifle in his right.
In that small classroom, the danger was clearly mounting by the minute, as the sound of a US unmanned drone overhead became louder and louder. The more you hear the sound of a drone – bmmmmm – the more it hurts your head. The lower the pitch means the drone is higher in the sky; the louder it is, the closer. Sitting on a chair, I looked through a broken window to see whether I could see any sign of impending attack. There was good reason to be nervous: the man being interviewed was claimed by Washington DC to be ‘hosting’ al-Qaeda in Pakistan, actively engaged in planning attacks on US and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. Islamabad, meanwhile, held him responsible for all the major terrorist activities in the country, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
After the interview, I asked the man about the drone that we had heard. “I have no fear,” said the short, stocky Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the TTP, the umbrella of militant organisations that since early 2007 had spread throughout the tribal belt along the Afghan border. In retrospect, of course, perhaps he should have. On 5 August, a drone killed him at his father-in-law’s house in South Waziristan, in an attack that left his second wife dead as well – if Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik is to be believed. Indeed, the days following 5 August were suddenly rife with rumours, claims and counterclaims, by various governments and those close to Baitullah himself. His lieutenants continue to deny his death, though the 17 August arrest of TTP spokesperson Maulvi Omar seemed to confirm the reports of Baitullah’s death. Either way, this ‘chief terrorist’, whom American and Pakistani intelligence officials have said to be as dangerous as Osama bin Laden, has not been heard from or seen in public since.
How was Baitullah able to create such a large and powerful organisation as the TTP within two years? Personally, I found the man far more mature, serious and intelligent than I have found other militant commanders, such as Nek Muhammad and Abdullah Mehsud. Others agree. “He was gentle and very friendly in his dealings, but that did not hide the real militant within him,” says BBC journalist Haroon Rashid. “He was one of the most dangerous militants … but his biggest weapon was his ability to organise, such as what he did with the TTP – to make it, within a few years into a widespread umbrella organisation.” Indeed, Baitullah’s primary achievement was not his much-expanded militancy network, but how he took the war out of his relatively remote area of Waziristan and directly to the Pakistani metropolis, which are today barricaded and literally under siege. Until his death, he was leading the single largest group of hardened militants in Pakistan, which officials believed numbered some 10,000 – including Pakistanis, as well as Uzbeks, Arabs and other foreign militants. His spending on military activities is said to have exceeded PKR 3 billion (USD 36.2 million) per year.
The Mehsud are a Pashtun tribe based in the very centre of South Waziristan, which it dominates along with its bitter rivals, the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe. The Mehsud are divided into three clans, the Manzai, Bahlolzai and Shamankhel, which are collectively referred to as the dre maseed, or the Three Mehsud. In the words of Sir Olaf Caroe, the one-time governor of the British Indian frontier, the Mehsud tribe is made up of “a people who could never dream of submitting to a foreign power.” From 1860 to 1937, English forces repeatedly attacked Mehsud positions, but were never able to get a foothold in the area.
Baitullah Mehsud, who turned 37 on his last birthday, appeared for the first time in 2004 as deputy to Abdullah Mehsud, another militant leader whom Washington found innocent after keeping him for more than two years in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Having served as a commander with the Taliban during its rule in Afghanistan, Baitullah formed his own group after Abdullah went underground following Islamabad’s displeasure with his October 2004 kidnapping of two Chinese workers at a key hydropower project in South Waziristan. A strong military push in November 2004 against the Mehsud militants resulted in ‘peace deal’ with Baitullah the following February; since then, there has been little reliable information about the militant leader.
Baitullah was obsessed with the concept of jihad. “Allah on 480 occasions in the Holy Quran extols Muslims to wage jihad,” he used to say when pressed as to why he was waging a war he could hardly sustain. “We only fulfil god’s orders. Only jihad can bring peace to the world.” Accepted Pashtun hatred for invaders ran high in his blood. “Believe me, these infidels want to capture Afghanistan. We should not let them do this,” he said in April 2007. I asked him what logic he could offer for attacks inside Pakistan or on the Pakistani security forces. “The Pakistan Army’s support for the Americans is delaying the defeat of the Americans in Afghanistan,” he said. Baitullah developed his ‘nuisance value’ through small groups in different places, using them as pressure groups against the government to extract concessions in Waziristan.
After the peace deal, the military moved back to its barracks in Wana and other towns in and around South Waziristan. What followed was the targeted killing of a slew of pro-government tribal elders by the militants; all the while, the federal government simply sat on the sidelines watching, as it were. The government had at that time been following a “policy of retreat”, admitted NWFP Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani during a speech on 14 August this year. He said the new policy was to “hold-the-line” against militancy. Yet by the time the government officials began to wake up to reality in 2007, considerable damage had already been done: Baitullah had extended his influence beyond the Waziristan border, far into the NWFP. According to many, the government of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a conglomerate of religious parties with considerable sympathy for the Taliban that was in power in NWFP from 2002 until 2007, may have assisted Baitullah’s spread across the province.
In the early years of its rule in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban restricted itself to jihad in Afghanistan. However, the militants began to see increased public support in the Pakistani frontier areas following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001. This was particularly so as General Pervez Musharraf’s approval rating in Pakistan plummeted following the ‘unprecedented concessions’ that the public saw him giving the US to track down al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives on Pakistani soil. Thereafter, the militant influence spread slowly. Outside of the tribal areas, for instance, there was no attack of any kind until 8 November 2006, when a young suicide bomber walked towards army recruits in the town Dargai, near Swat District, to avenge the 30 October US strike in a seminary in Bajaur during which some 80 students had been killed.
The Dargai attack opened something of a floodgate of militancy across the country by the Taliban, and Baitullah Mehsud missed no opportunity to take credit for every attack his men executed successfully. Pakistanis first tasted real Taliban-style ‘justice’ in Mingora, the district headquarters of Swat, where beheaded bodies were hung in public as a warning to those who could resist Taliban diktat. The violence then spread massively. Within the next year and a half 1366 attacks had taken place with 2686 killed.
Yet similarly disastrous has been the state’s response, something that Baitullah said was good for his own recruiting purposes. In early spring 2007, I asked him, “Your guerrilla tactics may pose a threat to the US and the Pakistani military. But how can you face the US dominance in the sky?” To which he responded, “If the US morale is as high as mine, then we have a long war to fight. If I go on a three-month campaign for the hearts and minds of the civilians, I may win over 50 or 60 people. But a single air strike brings out the whole population, because it kills more innocent people than wanted men.” Indeed, the US drones might be good at taking out wanted targets; but the cost of these attacks seems incredibly high in terms of losing hearts and minds. David Kilcullen, a former adviser to the US Army, has stated that drone attacks inside Pakistani territory are today “creating more enemies” than they eliminate.
Importantly, the Baitullah killing comes following sharp criticism by senior Pakistani civil and military officials of the US role in ‘allowing’ militants to harm Pakistan while specifically targeting militants who are seen as posing serious challenge mainly to American security and strategic interests. Indeed, the US has been seen to focus increasingly on Baitullah’s strongholds in South Waziristan. Last year, the CIA carried out 26 drone attacks in South and North Waziristan and the Orakzai tribal region, mainly targeting groups that cross into Afghanistan to strike against coalition forces. The number of drone attacks also increased significantly following the swearing-in of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led coalition government on 25 March 2008, with a total of 50 drone attacks having taken place in the last 17 months.
Baitullah Mehsud is now the third top militant leader, after Nek Muhammad and Abdullah Mehsud, to have been pursued and killed since Pakistan joined the US-led ‘war on terror’. Yet one mystery will remain regarding Baitullah: Who he was ‘working’ for? The Afghan government claims the militant groups operating in the border areas are protected by the Pakistani state as ‘assets’ to use for achieving ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. But the fact is that it will take years if not decades to deal with the damage that Baitullah caused to the Pakistani psyche and infrastructure. Since militancy spiked in 2002, Islamabad says the country has suffered USD 35 billion in losses due to the collapse of the tourism industry and, plummeting domestic production, and loss of investment. Alas, the question of just whom Baitullah was working for was buried with him.
On the assumption that Baitullah is indeed now dead, what is to happen to the TTP? Public sentiment in Pakistan has dramatically shifted towards the government in recent months, with Taliban, be gone! and similar slogans for the first time being seen on Pakistan’s streets. In the past, any time a top militant leader has been killed, the group that he was leading has also quickly disappeared or merged into other groups. The passing of Nek Muhammad and Abdullah Mehsud are both cases in point, with both leaders being replaced by pro-government commanders.
To date, no militant leader has publicly stated that Baitullah is dead. However, in what appears to be a ‘silent coup’, on 19 August the TTP deputy chief, Maulvi Faqir, elevated himself to the post of amir; two days later, Baitullah’s deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud (see photo below), was likewise nominated. Theses are indications of internal differences over the selection of new leader – with rumours of significant violence between potential torchbearers immediately after Baitullah’s alleged death. Regardless, though, the most significant question today is whether the government will finally be able to utilise the current situation to its advantage. One way or another, the war against militancy will not be won unless the damage done by Baitullah Mehsud is undone.