If Baitullah Mehsud is really dead, it's great news for Pakistan and the United States, and bad news for the militants.
- By Imtiaz GulImtiaz Gul is the head of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad and the author of the forthcoming book The Al Qaeda Connection: Terror in Tribal Areas.
A Hellfire missile, fired from a CIA-operated drone an hour past midnight Wednesday, Pakistan time, tore Baitullah Mehsud’s body into two pieces. He was said to be on a glucose drip — dispensed by a local paramedic named Saeedullah — on the rooftop of his in-laws’ house in Zangara, South Waziristan, when hell rained down and took several lives, including that of Mehsud and his second wife.
If this eyewitness account — narrated on the phone by an intelligence operative to journalists based in Peshawar, the provincial capital, were true, then the icon of al Qaeda militants — ready to kill and die for their cause — is gone. Back in its December 2007 annual issue, the Time magazine had listed Baitullah Mehsud among “its 100 most influential individuals” around the globe. By then, Mehsud had already declared jihad on the West.
“Our main aim is to finish Britain and the United States and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims. We pray to God to give us the ability to destroy the White House, New York, and London. Very soon, we will be witnessing jihad’s miracles,” the diminutive militant told the Doha-based Al Jazeera satellite channel in January 2008.
The radical maverick had carried a $5 million bounty after the U.S. State Department described him as a clear threat to American interests in the region. He stunned many in and outside the country on March 31, 2009, when he owned up to a commando raid and the ensuing bloody siege of a police training academy a day earlier on the outskirts of the eastern city of Lahore. The roughly eight-hour long operation resulted in the deaths of eight policemen and four attackers. Four were arrested.
“We did it as a retaliation for U.S. missile strikes off drones inside the Pakistani territory,” said Mehsud, the first such admission he had made personally.
Like most other militants and several Pakistani opposition leaders, Baitullah also bitterly opposed the drone attacks, but finally, he too, fell to Hellfire missiles fired from a pilotless “Reaper” drone. According to local sources, Saeedullah, the paramedic, was a close relative of Mehsud’s father-in-law Ikramuddin who had been called in after the diminutive commander complained of weakness resulting from diarrhea and dehydration.
Early in January 2008, Pakistan’s security officials and the CIA had also named Mehsud as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He harbored foreign fighters, particularly those al Qaeda Central Asians who had fled from the Wana Valley following a commando operation by the local pro-government militant Mullah Nazir. Baitullah also shot into international headlines for his suicide bomber training camps, led by his deputy Qari Hussein and located mostly in and around the Shawaal area between North and South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban consider suicide attacks to be “a viable form of self-defense.”
All this had turned him into Pakistan’s most notorious militant commander, somebody accused of playing into the hands of foreign powers, including the United States and India, to destabilize Pakistan.
The stocky Baitullah, 36, was barely 5.2 feet tall with a less-than-swashbuckling appearance. But he radiated a certain charisma that appealed to people much taller and stronger in physique. Born into a poor ethnic Pashtoon family in the Makeen village of South Waziristan, Mehsud also participated in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and later assisted the Afghan Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance. During his years of fighting in Afghanistan, he drew inspiration from Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban chief, and of course the likes of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mehsud embraced their vision of an Islamic state, based on sharia (as they interpret it).
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 referred to him as the “governor” of the region because of his influence over the Mehsud tribe’s areas of the rugged and inhospitable terrain.
Baitullah Mehsud had formed his lethal Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007 when several tribal commanders became willing to operate under his leadership.
While his supporters believed Baitullah had brought peace to the Waziristan region, his detractors argued that any such 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 new cadre of diehard commanders, ready to take on Pakistani security forces in case of any major offensive.
Before Baitullah’s death, the TTP comprised about 40 militant commanders with a collective strength of about 25,000 and was considered to be the most lethal of the Taliban outfits in Pakistan’s wily regions bordering Afghanistan.
In May 2007, the group caused great embarrassment to the Pakistani Army when it ambushed and took at least 250 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 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 paramilitary, had remained TTP’s special targets; since 2006, Mehsud and allies have killed close to 3,000 policemen and paramilitary security personnel, including during a commando raid on the police academy in Lahore in March 2009.
Baitullah Mehsud’s abrupt disappearance from the scene has shocked his followers. Although no panic is likely to ensue after his exit from the militant scene, the psychological impact on the rank and file of the TTP is likely enormous.
Until recently, most analysts following the al Qaeda inspired militancy in the region had agreed that radical outfits like that of Mehsud appeared increasingly united and much better networked than ever before, and thus posed a bigger threat to the region and the world.
That is why, analysts opined, Mehsud’s death could dent the “unity of command” that had existed under his leadership. All those groups that had surrendered their regional identities and merged into the central TTP command structure might splinter again if the race to succeed Mehsud grows contentious.
And even if that succession battle proceeds smoothly, the message the lethal drone attack has sent across the ranks of the militants is loud and clear: No group or person challenging the writ of one or many states will go unpunished.
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. The United States was accusing Pakistan of using him as a bogeyman, or so read the argument. In this way, Baitullah Meshud remained a source of friction and distrust between the American and Pakistani security establishments.
Now, hopefully, the drone attack and its consequences will most probably wipe out that distrust, remove the mutual friction and pave the way for closer U.S.-Pakistani coordination and cooperation in the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda militants.
Whether that would mean taking on Afghan militants such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and Mullah Omar and their close associates — all the elements that are inflicting damage on the U.S.-NATO-Afghan forces — is an altogether different issue.
What is certain for now is that with the symbol of terror Baitullah Mehsud gone, also gone is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s unity of command. That, in turn is going to shake up the central command structure and make the group vulnerable to pressure on both sides of the Durand Line.