Baitullah Mehsud Pakistan's Prabhakaran?
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse Aug 13, 2009
Was Baitullah Mehsud – Pakistan’s Prabhakaran (the founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) seeking an independent Islamic Emirate, or a ruthless greedy mercenary to inflict damage on, and destabilize the state of Pakistan?
Based on scores of admissions of involvement in suicide bombings, sniper attacks on security forces across Pakistan and the intent of taking the war to Washington, one would tend to believe in the latter i.e. that Baitullah acted recklessly to instill fear in the hearts and minds of most Pakistanis and that his tactics aimed at demoralizing the army, the para-military and the police.
If the Hellfire missile fired off the CIA-operated drone, Reaper, really tore Baitullah apart (as it has been reported) then he certainly deserved it for the simple reason that he himself had claimed responsibility for the deaths of thousands of innocent people all over the country.
Government allegations notwithstanding, the financial support for Baitullah’s lethal Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) remains a big issue for debate as abductions for ransom and drugs’ money alone would probably not be enough to sustain thousands of well-armed fighters.
The stocky Baitullah, 36, was barely 5.2 feet tall with a mediocre appearance but he radiated a certain charisma that appealed to common people. The “Governor of Waziristan” had grown megalomaniac, and deluded himself with a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the Pakistani security apparatus.
In September 2008, Mehsud, a known diabetic, married for the second time after the first marriage did not produce any children. Waziristani journalists and supporters also called him the governor of the region because of his influence over the Mehsud areas of the rugged and inhospitable terrain.
Journalists recall seeing a doctor from Rawalpindi attending to him when he had met with over two dozen media men (24 May 2008) at a government school in the Spiknai Raghzai area.
It was his brazenness that made him contact reporters in Peshawar on March 31, 2009 and admit that the commando raid and the ensuing bloody siege of the Manawan police training academy a day earlier on the outskirts of the eastern city of Lahore, was his job.
The roughly eight-hour long siege and gun-battle had resulted in the deaths of eight policemen and four attackers. His deputy Hakeemullah Mehsud made similar claims after the attacks on Rescue 15 (adjacent to the provincial ISI headquarters).
In May 2007, the group caused great embarrassment to the Pakistan army, when it ambushed and took at least 250 Pakistan army officers and soldiers hostage, before releasing them in late August after arduous talks, and most probably payment of heavy ransom.
In July 2009, Mehsud’s men again caused great embarrassment to the Pakistani security forces when they sniped at a military convoy, killing about a dozen soldiers including two officers. Pakistani security forces, the police and the para-military had remained TTP’s special targets; since 2006, Mehsud and allies have killed close to 3000 policemen and para-military security personnel, including the commando raid on the police academy in Lahore (March 2009).
All this had turned him into Pakistan's most notorious militant commander, who was never shy of seeking cheap publicity by bragging about his suicide bombers (my atom bombs) and his ability to hit the army at will. That is why, he had grown too big for the shoes that he wore and could not digest the unusual international focus on him and his organization.
Like other militants and several Pakistani opposition leaders, Baitullah also bitterly opposed the drone attacks but finally, he too, fell to the combination of the Hellfire missiles, the pilot-less planes “Reaper,” and ground intelligence.
Baitullah clearly harbored foreign fighters, particularly those al-Qaeda Central Asians who had fled from the Wana valley following a commando operation in March 2007 by the local pro-government militant Mullah Nazir. These Uzbeks, all members of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, had in fact turned into a challenge for Nazir and the government after they began sniping at the Pakistani security forces and their local supporters.
While his supporters believed, Baitullah had brought peace to the Waziristan region; his detractors argued that the peace came at a high price. Like a Mafia boss, they say, Mehsud and his lieutenants shook down the populace for protection money. Being Pakistan’s most influential Taliban leader, Baitullah had trained and lined up a whole new bunch of die-hard commanders, all set and ready to take on the security forces in case of any major offensive.
Baitullah Mehsud rose to international prominence in a particular context that helped catapult him into an undisputed leader, a magnet that pulled commanders from all over.
Naik Mohammad Wazir’s brutal death in a controversial suspected US strike in June 2004, and that of Abdullah Mehsud two years later had created a void that Baitullah found easier to fill. Also when Pakistan military gradually mounted its campaign against militants inside FATA, Baitullah also grew in influence, riding a wave of disapproval of the military and the hatred of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. The Lal Mosque operation in July 2007 provided him with additional ammunition to fire at government, and thus gained more support from Al-Qaeda inspired young fighters, also supported by a large number of Punjabi militants, particularly zealots of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But the context for Baitullah’s successor has changed altogether; the Bush-Musharraf combination is gone. The Obama administration is closely coordinating its military strategy with the Pakistan army, and the Taliban largely stand discredited after their reckless attempt to take over Swat and Buner in May. The TTP and other shades of Taliban don’t enjoy the kind of public support that they had before the Malakand operation.
This context is likely to work to the detriment of the new successor, who will find it extremely difficult to keep all the commanders together the way Baitullah did. His abrupt disappearance from the scene has sent shock across his cadres. The psychological impact on the rank and file of the TTP and the organizational fall out is probably going to be huge.
Until recently, most analysts following the Al-Qaeda inspired militancy in the region had agreed that radical outfits like that of Mehsud appear increasingly united and much better networked than ever before, and thus a much bigger threat to the region and the world.
That is why, opined analysts, Mehsud’s death could dent the “unity of command” that had existed under Mehsud. All those groups, who had in December 2007 surrendered their regional identities and merged into the central TTP command structure, There is little doubt that even if the succession issue ends up as a smooth affair, the message of the lethal drone attack is loud and clear; no group or person challenging the writ of one or many states would be spared.
Until now, the Pakistani army establishment had accused the United States of “sparing Baitullah Mehsud by design.” Defense and intelligence officials claimed that since Mehsud was inflicting damage on the Pakistani security apparatus, the Americans were refraining from a conclusive action against the warlord. They (US) are using him as a scarecrow for us (Pakistan), so read the argument.
This way Baitullah Mehsud remained a source of friction and distrust between the American and Pakistani security establishments.
Now, hopefully, the drone attack and its consequences would most probably wipe out that distrust, remove the mutual friction and pave way for closer Pak-US coordination and cooperation in the hunt for Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Whether that would mean taking on Afghan militants such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbadin Hekmetyar or Mullah Omar and their close associates – all those elements that are inflicting damage on the US-NATO-Afghan forces – is an altogether different issue. What is certain for the time being is that with the symbol of terror Baitullah Mehsud is gone, also gone is the unity of command which in turn is going to shake up the central command structure, and that would make the TTP vulnerable to pressure and perusal by the state on both sides of the Durand Line.
(The author is the chairman, Centre for Research and Security Studies).