The Phantom of a new anarchy

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

HE IS often described as a guerilla fighter par excellence. His arsenal is lethal, for like most war lords, it consists not just of disciplined Kalashnikovwielding cadres but motivated suicide bombers, willing to swiftly turn their bodies into human missiles. He is known more for his ‘profession’ — jehad — and less for what he did as he was growing up in the tough terrain of Waziristan in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). His brand of jehad has catapulted him to power and infamy and Baitullah Mehsud — a household name beyond the borders of Pakistan — is being called the new Osama.
Barely in his mid-30s, Mehsud’s meteoric rise — embellished with attack after deadly attack at alarming regularity – has been internationally acknowledged. He found his way in Timemagazine’s list of 100 most influential leaders and revolutionaries. Newsweek magazine has described him as being “more dangerous than Osama bin Laden’’ and only late last month, the US Department of State announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the location, arrest, and/or conviction of Baitullah Mehsud, the senior leader of Tehreek-e- Taliban (Taliban Movement of Pakistan).
A press release issued by the US Bureau of Public Affairs says, “Mehsud is regarded as a key al Qaeda facilitator in the tribal areas of South Waziristan in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities believe that the January 2007 suicide attack against the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was staged by militants loyal to Mehsud. Press reports also have linked Mehsud to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the deaths of other innocent civilians. In addition, Mehsud has stated his intention to attack the United States. He has conducted cross-border attacks against US forces in Afghanistan, and poses a clear threat to American persons and interests in the region.”
Five million dollars is no small amount and Mehsud is no small man. Often described as ‘Pakistan’s Osama’, Mehsud’s reward money is the exact same as was announced for the al Qaeda chief who has been on the run since 9/11, 2001. Matchboxes being sold in NWFP’s capital city of Peshawar carry a picture of Osama, the world’s most wanted fugitive, with text in Urdu announcing that the US government promises to pay up to five million dollars for information leading to Osama’s whereabouts.
So who is Mehsud and why is he being likened to the man who displayed the power of changing New York’s skyline, when pilots allegedly trained by him reduced the stately Twin Towers to rubble? Personal details about Mehsud are still very sketchy. The little that is known is that he was briefly a gym instructor, that he is diabetic and that he shuns publicity — probably the reason why only one photograph is in circulation. Lots, however, is documented about his militant activities. Inspired by the one-eyed Mullah Omar (also on the run since 9/11), Mehsud, in fact, started his career in jehad after the US’ global war against terror when President George Bush called his counterpart, President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and infamously said — you are either with us or against us.
MUSHARRAF WAS quick in reversing his policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the Taliban and while he took a sharp U-turn — fighting the very Taliban that Pakistan had helped train — he lost popularity and support amongst his own people, as was evidenced in the elections last year. The vote was clearly more a referendum against Musharraf and his pro-US stance, a sentiment that overtook the sympathy factor for Benazir Bhutto, assassinated only months before the February 2008 election. Mehsud, in fact, earned his spurs at this precise time when the hatred for America took deep root in Waziristan, an agency in Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The tribal areas are the geo-strategic gateway to Afghanistan, and South Waziristan, from where Mehsud hails, has been an important supply route for the militants since the 1980s, when they crossed over to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mehsud’s support base can be explained through the fact that the Mehsud tribe comprises up to 70 percent of the population in South and North Waziristan.
Tribe loyalty is a strong factor that has propelled the new Osama, but Baitullah Mehsud’s brand of jehad has several other ingredients that have been slowly but steadily brewed to fatal perfection. Former ISI chief Hamid Gul, who is often referred to as the ‘father of the Taliban’, when asked about Mehsud said, “He was a non-entity till 9/11 but now appears to be a world-class commando with tribal warlike abilities. He is a Pashtun and revenge is core to the Pashtun honour code. He is fighting the US forces in Afghanistan on the basis of revenge motivation. Pashtuns don’t take kindly to invaders.”

Americawill give $5 million for Mehsud, regarded as a key al Qaeda facilitator

NOT KNOWN to have had any formal education, Mehsud, according to Pakistani journalists, has only studied in a madarsa, where he was inspired by the Taliban ideology. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is one of the ingredients in that fatal brew and Mehsud, in his interviews — he only speaks Pashto — has often said, “Allah on 480 occasions in the Holy Quran extols Muslims to wage jihad. We only fulfil God’s orders. Only jihad can bring peace to the World.”
But all Talibs are steeped in similar interpretations and if Mehsud has risen from the ranks to now demand attention in the minds of Barack Obama’s key aides, it is because he has also displayed political and strategic skills (see accompanying piece by Prem Shankar Jha.) Apart from being a local who was brought up in the rocky terrain which he knows backwards, he, as Lt Gen (Retd) Talat Masood, a Pakistan-based strategic analyst put it, “has leadership qualities. The American presence has triggered a strong nationalistic impulse and Mehsud has become the popular face of resistance. The real problem is that the drone attacks have had a serious psychological fallout amongst Pakistanis.”

Mehsud earned his spurs at the precise time when hatred for the US took deep root

Baitullah Mehsud has crafted this sentiment to his advantage and is now the one man who is not just spearheading the fight against the US and the NATO allies but has emerged as the single-most serious threat to Pakistan itself. The man, who has often boasted and made dramatic declarations like — if the US has air power, we have fidayeen (suicide bombers) — has only last week declared his new intent: Pakistan will witness two attacks every week. That he has a committed cadre and enoughfidayeen has been displayed time and again. The recent dramatic early morning attack on the police academy in Lahore that left 20 dead and close to a 100 injured forced Pakistan’s Interior Advisor, Rehman Malik to make a startling revelation on national television, saying, Mehsud is recruiting suicide bombers and paying them Rs 5 to 15 lakh each.

Hurting the state Security forces stand guard outside a paramilitary camp hit by a suicide bomber
Hurting the state Security forces stand guard outside a paramilitary camp hit by a suicide bomber
Photos: AP

The man who started his jehad journey by trying to enforce Shariah and then quickly moved on to dispatch men from Waziristan into Afghanistan to take on the US-led coalition and their global war against the al Qaeda, now heads the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan . If, in South Asia, the hyphen has shifted from India-Pakistan to Afghanistan-Pakistan, it is something Mehsud and his estimated 18,000-strong army can take credit for. Ironically, the Pakistani Taliban was formally set up only in December 2007, barely a year and a half ago.

‘480 times in the Quran, Allah told Muslims to wage jihad,’ Mehsud often says in Pashto

But even before the Tehreek-e- Taliban was born, Baitullah was the chief negotiator and signatory to many peace pacts that the Army nudged the provincial NWFP government to sign. In February 2005, for instance, Baitullah signed a deal with the federal government. Wanted for providing home and hearth to al Qaeda operatives in Waziristan, Mehsud signed a pact with the government pledging that he would neither shelter the al Qaeda nor launch operations against the Pakistani army. His role as chief negotiator immediately propelled him as the leader in the troublesome tribal belt. As Hamid Gul puts it, “Mehsud gained in stature, for the tribals started seeing him as somebody who was an entity at par with the government.”
But like in Swat, where the Asif Ali Zardari dispensation has just signed a tenuous peace pact which is already showing signs of falling apart, Baitullah’s promise was soon broken by him. In fact, his peace pacts have always been tactical pauses, used to consolidate his own well-oiled jehadi machine.

After Lal Masjid was stormed, Mehsud held 250 Pakistani soldiers as his hostages

Baitullah’s rise is intrinsically linked to Musharraf’s open support of the US. If the storming of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad was the tipping point wherein Musharraf stood isolated amongst his own people, it was also the point when Baituallah shifted some of his focus away from Afghanistan and trained his guns squarely in the direction of the Pakistani state. Lal Masjid was stormed in June 2007 and within two months, Baitullah, in brazen defiance, had 250 Pakistani soldiers as his hostages in South Waziristan. In what was easily his most humiliating moment, President Pervez Musharraf found himself negotiating a release strategy that ended on Baitullah’s terms. Musharraf was forced to release as many as 25 militants in exchange for his own troops. The 25 who walked out of state captivity were, according to Musharraf’s own admission, trained suicide bombers. Baitullah’s appointment as the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in December 2007, at a consultative council, was by then a mere formality. Baitullah used the gathering to reiterate his agenda: throw out coalition forces from Afghanistan. One eye trained on Pakistan, he also demanded the release of all prisoners including the Lal Masjid maulvi. Crucially, he also demanded that the Army withdraw its troops from Swat Valley, once better known as Pakistan’s Switzerland.

A UN report blames Mehsud for 80 percent of the bombings in Afghanistan

AS THE formal head of Tehreek-e-Taliban, Baitullah is not just a worry for Pakistan as it slowly descends into anarchy. He can also be described as the biggest international migraine, to borrow former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright’s words. A United Nations report released in 2007 blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Stories of how he orders death by stoning or death by flogging, of how music, television and photography are banned and how he gives a 24-hour-notice to government informers by sending them a needle and thread so they can make arrangements for their kafan are legendary; but pale in comparison to how lethal a global jehadi he has honed and chiselled himself into.

Mehsud’s man A gunman being dragged after the attack at Lahore’s police academy
Mehsud’s man A gunman being dragged after the attack at Lahore’s police academy

The most alarming thing for Pakistan itself is the bare fact that there is a lot of sympathy for him within the Pakistani Army. Gul ascribes this to the fact that Pashtuns are the second largest ethnic grouping, but this also translates not just into support for the Pakistani Taliban but into reluctance on the part of the forces to fight their own people. After the failed peace accord of 2005, Mehsud and his 17000-strong brigade succeeded in virtually pushing the Army out of South Waziristan. Says Ahmed Rashid, wellknown author of a book on the Taliban and a strategic expert, “Retired ISI officers are helping the Pakistani Taliban and they have become more Lashkar than the Lashkar.’’ Even the current ISI chief has, in informal briefings with journalists, described Mehsud as a “patriotic Pakistani”.
That Mehsud’s Taliban is a potent fighting force that threatens Pakistan is evident. What adds to its fire power is the fact that the civilian government — the Zardari-led PPP government is now a year old — is not up to the task of tackling terror. “Several governments have engaged Mehsud in talks but it has not worked, and the State has to assert itself but the problem is that we have very poor leadership,’’ says Talat Masood, adding, “Military rule incapacitated institutions and now the jehadis are incapacitating the State. International policy makers are not being very helpful either by leaning too heavily on Pakistan for the global war against terror.”
THE US’S war, which is now on top of Obama’s agenda, is clearly fanning the extremist fire in Pakistan. Says former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an exclusive interview to TEHELKA, “The drone attacks must stop immediately”. If there is consensus in Pakistan, it is on the issue of how Pakistan’s support to the US is now leading to the country itself imploding. “Pakistan has never appeared so vulnerable,’’ says Masood, and many will concur. In fighting America’s war, Pakistan finds itself at war with itself. Hamid Gul’s recipe for cure sounds simple. “We have to change our pro-US policies,’’ he says, and that definitely is Pakistan’s mood. It was that mood that threw Musharraf out of power. The more crucial question is — can Zardari or any civilian Prime Minister, or dictator for that matter, even survive such a drastic policy change?
The State cannot implement the policy even though it knows what it is. The prevarication, or the plain unwillingness, or perhaps the inability of going against the world’s superpower is what keeps Baitullah Mehsud in business. He is not short on determination. Or indoctrination. Or suicide bombers.