Commander of the Faithful
In May of last year, a convoy of journalists made its way from Peshawar up into the remote reaches of South Waziristan. They were responding to an invitation from the diminutive, diabetic, and hypertensive commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban. With characteristic grandiosity, the commander laid out a lavish feast for the reporters before sharing his reason for summoning them: an official declaration of jihad against U.S forces across the border in Afghanistan.
Meet Baitullah Mehsud — Pakistan’s biggest problem, and the man who has taken his country of 176 million to the center of the West’s war on terror. Once described by a Pakistani general as a “soldier of peace,” he now carries a 50 million rupee (about $615,300) bounty on his head from Pakistan and a $5 million one from the United States. Mehsud is earning the ire of the Pakistani military and Western policymakers alike as his movement destabilizes Pakistan, and the United States has destroyed several of his hide-outs with drone strikes in recent months. His now-famous 2008 press conference — which came almost exactly a decade after Osama bin Laden called for the killing of Americans in a similar announcement just across the border in Khost, Afghanistan — was an extraordinary piece of stagecraft even for a commander with a certain penchant for public flare. By incautiously exposing his location to a big group of journalists, Mehsud should have facilitated his own capture; that he didn’t serves as ongoing testament to the incompetence (and perhaps lack of will) of those who purport to pursue him.
Mehsud’s growing influence is of particular concern to Western policymakers because Pakistan represents the gravest general security threat to the international community — the prospect of a nuclear-armed al Qaeda. Keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons out of the hands of Islamist extremists is contingent on a stable Pakistani state, and Mehsud is the one man perhaps most capable of destabilizing it.
According to journalists from the tribal region, Mehsud’s force structure is diverse: It includes approximately 12,000 local fighters, many belonging to his own Mehsud tribe, and close to 4,000 foreign fighters, predominantly Arabs and Central Asians seasoned in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. Many of them spent time in al Qaeda training camps and can’t return to their home countries for fear of prosecution. By giving them a cause and a home — in parts of South Waziristan where they are accessible to him on short notice — Mehsud has expanded his corps of fighters. He also has a stable of teenage boys who have been indoctrinated to serve as suicide bombers. For the last five years, Mehsud has used this army to terrorize Pakistan with suicide bombings, hostage takings, and brazen military offensives. In one spectacular show of strength, he took close to 300 Pakistani soldiers, including officers, hostage in South Waziristan in August 2007. Mehsud demanded that his top militant prisoners be freed in exchange. It was a glorious moment for Mehsud when the government agreed after just 2½ months.
With this singular résumé, it was no surprise that Mehsud was named head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan when the group formed in December 2007. Since then, the man known as amir (leader) by his followers has expanded his campaign by launching a remarkably effective drive to erode state writ and disassemble traditional tribal structures, both of which constitute obstacles to Taliban rule. He has ordered the murder of more than 300 tribal elders, clearing the way for Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt to become something of a forward operating base for terrorists.
“He has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan,” Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said recently. Indeed, a United Nations report released in September 2007 blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials have accused him of assassinating the country’s most popular politician and ex-prime minster, Benazir Bhutto — a charge he has denied.
Mehsud’s connections are extensive throughout Pakistan and the region. He has taken an oath of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is close to al Qaeda’s top leadership in the Af-Pak border region and to Qari Tahir Yaldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He is also well-connected to the Punjabi militant groups that have long been operating in Indian-occupied Kashmir. And he maintains cordial ties with the Haqqani network, widely considered by Western officials to be one of the most dangerous groups of veteran jihadists in the region and the bridge between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban movements.
Despite Mehsud’s infamy today, little is known about the man or his past. He seems to crave public attention but won’t let his face be photographed; he is said to be charismatic in person but not a gifted public speaker. Currently in his late 30s, he was born in Bannu on the southern side of the border between North and South Waziristan. He belongs to the Shabikhel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Unlike most Taliban commanders and tribal elders in the region, he was neither well-educated nor wealthy; he attended a madrasa and school but never finished either. Yet he has been able to capitalize on his humble beginnings to win support. In recent attacks, he has targeted landowners, positioning the Taliban as something of a people’s movement. To win respect among insurgents, he has played up a reputation for battlefield bravery and claims to have participated in the anti-Soviet jihad (which is disputed, as he would have been a young boy during most of it). Whatever the truth of his origins, it’s clear Mehsud first solidified his position in the insurgency by playing a major role in repelling Pakistani military operations in Waziristan ongoing since 2005.
So, how to check a man who has become so entrenched in the region? A favorite tactic of the Pakistani military has been working with rival leaders. Since 2006, Pakistan has purportedly been trying to pit commanders such as Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur — the top militant leaders from South and North Waziristan — against Mehsud. But here, the government has met little success because Mehsud has in many cases dismantled the centuries-old tribal structures in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); there is no mechanism left to mobilize against him. This June, another Taliban commander, Qari Zainuddin, challenged Mehsud and was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. The murder was a stark message to others who might try the same.
One pressure point might be Mehsud’s funding stream, but no one is certain exactly where his money is coming from. According to local sources, he taxes trucks passing through the region and might be drawing ransom payments from the kidnappings of Western journalists and officials, both of which have become increasingly common along the Af-Pak border. It’s also known that for a time, he received funds from al Qaeda through Sirajuddin Haqqani — son of legendary Afghan mujahideen commander and insurgent Jalaluddin Haqqani. But no one has yet put forth a practical plan for how to disrupt Mehsud’s income stream.
Implausible conspiracy theories about Mehsud also abound, and his carefully maintained mystique does nothing to quell them. Lately, conjectures about who Mehsud’s benefactors might be have been running in the Pakistani press and circulating among officials. Many claim he is an “Indian agent” who receives support from the Indian consulates in border cities of Afghanistan. The theory is that India supports Mehsud as retribution for Pakistan’s government-backed militant groups meddling in Kashmir. Another emerging candidate is even more absurd: America. The United States wants Pakistan to become so unstable, the reasoning goes, that it is obligated to come in and secure the nukes. How else can one explain why U.S. troops haven’t killed him yet? Pakistani intelligence officials were recently quoted in the press saying that they had twice tipped off U.S. forces about Mehsud’s whereabouts so that he could be targeted. According to them, the tips were ignored.
Yet if ever there were a time to go after Mehsud, it is now. With Pakistani forces claiming success in their recent operation against the Taliban in the picturesque Swat Valley, which displaced some 2.5 million people, the Tehrik-e-Taliban leader is the next assumed target. Official statements indicate that Pakistan’s beleaguered military is finally flexing its muscles for what has been described by the local media as a “decisive showdown” with Mehsud and his fighters. But Pakistanis and Western experts are still skeptical about how firm the military’s commitment is. Local tribesmen have accused the Pakistan Army of adopting a policy of appeasement, for example by signing a “peace deal” with Mehsud in February 2005 rather than taking any serious action against him and his fighters. Mehsud certainly never honored any accord with the government, for which he was supposed to disarm his militia and stop cross-border terrorism. Quite the opposite; such agreements have made Mehsud bolder and stronger and have provided him the chance to grow his forces and strengthen his position — now spanning the whole FATA region and parts of the North-West Frontier Province.
Until he is finally taken down, Mehsud will continue bullying Pakistan’s military, challenging the state, uprooting centuries-old tribal structures, and sowing the seeds of chaos across the country. Mehsud recently announced that his next target would be the heart of U.S. power — the White House in Washington. He hasn’t failed to come through on such a promise like that yet.
Imtiaz Ali is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the USIP, which does not take policy positions.
This article was published in the Foreign Affairs Journal on July 9, 2009.