Saturday, August 8, 2009

Death of a Leading Taliban Commander in Pakistan: Killing Baitullah Mehsud & and What It Means

This is a guest column by a colleague who is an expert on Pakistan-Afghanistan

By Isaac Kfir

At around 01:00 on Wednesday (19 GMT Tuesday) a CIA drone attack allegedly killed one of Pakistan’s most feared Taliban commanders, the 35-year-old Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah has been responsible for the death of countless of people and taking jihad from the tribal belt to the cities.

In September 2009, he orchestrated the Marriot Hotel bombings which killed 50 people. He was also behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. This explains why Time Magazine rated him among the top 100 most influential people in the world, with the Taliban commander coming above Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch, and many more.

According to Kafayat Ullah, a reported aid to Mehsud, the attack took place when Mehsud was at his father-in-law’s house in the Zangarha area.

Mehsud began his career as a talib (student) in a radical madrassa in Miranshah, North Waziristan, though he did not become a religious scholar. He received his military training from the legendary Pashtun commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who had spent more than a decade fighting the Soviets. He later joined the Taliban effort against the Northern Alliance. This is possibly when Mehsud left the Haqqani Network and joined Mullah Omar, Haqqani’s bitter rival.

In 2006, in a special ceremony attended by a number of important Taliban commanders, Mehsud was appointed Mullah Omar’s governor of the Mehsud tribe, sealing the special relationship between the two men. Mehsud had spent the following years ensuring the Talibanization of South Waziristan, closing down barber and music shops as well as schools for girls and imposing Shari’a law.

Mehsud comes from a relatively small Broomikhel clan, an offshoot of the Shabikhel sub-tribe, which is a part of the larger Mehsud tribe. But due to his skills and close ties to Mullah Omar has been able to unify the various Taliban groups under one umbrella organization known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) which operates in the Waziristan area. In reality the group’s operation is mainly in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and specifically in the Bajour Agency. There are seven agencies in the FATA and it appears that TTP controls a number of them, making it very difficult for the Pakistani military to engage these fighters who know the terrain and the people.

This may also explain why the government has for the past several years being keen to sign peace and ceasefire agreements with these tribal leaders. Looking back one can see two ways in which the Pakistanis have dealt with their own version of the Taliban: either killing them (often with a missile attack managed by the United States) or signing ceasefire and peace agreements with them.

There are three prospective successors to Baitullah: Hakimullah Mehsud, Wali-ur-Rehman and Maulana Azmatullah of which not much is known. Hakimullah Mehsud, a 29-year old Mehsud tribal leader also known as Zulfiqar Mehsud, has a 10 million rupee ($120,000) bounty on his head, as he is seen as the person responsible for launching attacks against U.S. and NATO supply convoys. Hakimullah allegedly has around 8,000 men under his direct command.

The other two men are relatively unknown, though Rehman is supposed to be a cousin of Baitullah Mehsud and was one of his closest advisers.

Reportedly, Baitullah has said that he wanted Rehman to succeed him, but history has shown that such requests are not always followed, as there is tremendous amount of internal politics. As seen for example in the relationship that Baitullah Mehsud had with Qari Zainuddin, a fellow Mehsud but from the Shaman Khel sub-clan of the Mehsud. The two men were at great odds, with Zainuddin refusing to accept the Baitullah’s leadership. Zainuddin was killed by his bodyguard of six year, Gulbadin Mehsud, a man whom he had considered a close friend (Gulbadin had previously served as Baitullah Mehud’s bodyguard).

The key issue now is whether the Pakistani Taliban would cease to be the threat that it was when Baitullah Mehsud was leading it, or whether his successor would seek to avenge Baitullah’s death as well as strive to impose his own print on the group. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike on June 7 2006, brought a change in the tactics of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and with it a reduction in attacks against civilians.

Thus, due to the unknown quantity of Baitullah’s successors it is quite possible that South Waziristan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan will experience a lull in suicide attacks, which makes it even more important for the international community to enter the region and undertake substantive confidence-building measures as well as invest in the reconstruction of the region.

Isaac Kfir is the Schusterman Visiting Fellow at Syracuse University, Maxwell School of Public Administration / Institute for Counter-Terrorism (INSCT).

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