US, Pakistan Gunning for Taliban Warlord in South Waziristan
In preparation for a ground offensive, Pakistani fighter jets were reported on Monday June 22 to have bombed areas believed to be part of the stronghold of Pakistan's Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud around the town of Makeen in South Waziristan.
The next day, another two events connected with the wanted terrorist warlord occurred:
A US drone-borne missile killed some 60 people at the funeral of Niaz Wali, Pakistani Taliban commander of South Waziristan and a Mehsud ally, in the village of Najmarai in the Makeen district. Three missiles were fired as people dispersed after the funeral prayers.
In another incident, one of Mehsud's leading opponents in the Taliban leadership, Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, was shot dead in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in the North-West Frontier Province.
In recent months, Zainuddin had become very vocal in his criticism of Mehsud. The warlord settled this score with brutal simplicity. A bodyguard was paid and squeezed by his tribe and family to turn on his boss, Zainuddin, and kill him.
These two incidents were the opening shots in the US-Pakistani campaign to finish off the most dangerous man in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, whom DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources dub “Pakistan''s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi” (after al Qaeda's Iraq commander).
Baitullah Mehsud: Glue for Pakistani Taliban factions
He has earned this distinction – and a five-million dollar bounty on his head – by three singular characteristics:
1. Mehsud, now in his thirties, is rated by US and Pakistani intelligence circles operating in these areas as the only force able to knit the various Taliban factions into a coherent fighting entity. His fall would cause the Pakistani Taliban, Washington and Islamabad's most formidable foe, to collapse and unravel into scattered strands.
As one intelligence source put it:
“Mehsud is the centre of gravity. He is the glue that connects all Taliban forces in Pakistan. If you could take out the leadership, the Taliban here will scatter as happened in 2007 to Al Qaeda in Iraq'” (after the Americans killed Zarqawi).
2. Baitullah has proved to be an outstanding organizer and planner as well as utterly ruthless in dealing out death. Responsible for hundreds of deaths, he is credited with the assassination of the Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto two years ago and more recently orchestrating the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March. Last month, in the same city, he set up the assassination of the scholarly imam Sarfaraz Naeemi, who ventured to criticize Taliban's violent methods.
Mehsud's elimination would go far toward stamping out the wholesale terrorism plaguing Pakistan and threatening the stability of the Islamabad government.
3. Al Qaeda cells are protected by the local population in South Waziristan. The death of this important Pakistani terrorist chief would diminish its leaders in their eyes as fallible and vulnerable. The cells would no longer be welcome in these safe havens and jumping-off bases for strikes in Afghanistan. In flight, al Qaeda fighters would be exposed to American spies and vulnerable to drone attacks.
The making of a terrorist
Born in the northwestern Pakistani Bannu district, Mehsud travelled to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to fight alongside the Taliban movement for control of government in Kabul. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 destroyed Taliban rule and drove its fighters and their al Qaeda allies into flight across the border to Pakistan. Many fetched up in the lawless badlands of Pakistan's western tribal areas.
There, they adopted Baitullah Mehsud as leader and gave him arms and funds.
As a budding local warlord, he joined forces with the veteran Islamic terrorist Qari Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the “Islamic Army of Uzbekistan” organization. The grizzled Uzbek fighter took the young gang leader under his wing and tutored him in radical terror tactics and anti-government ideology. Yuldashev place an IAU contingent of 2,500 Uzbeks under his pupil's command and Mehsud was off and running with the nucleus of a private militia that soon terrorized a whole district.
In South Waziristan, he established a mountain fiefdom by smashing traditional power structures, driving out tribal elders and turning his Mehsud clan into a criminal mob which spread violence and mayhem on the highways all the way to Karachi seaport in the south and up to the picturesque Swat valley in the northwest.
In December 2007, Mehsud formed the Tehrik-i-Taliban of Pakistan (Students Movement of Pakistan), an extremist anti-Islamabad umbrella organization committed to enforcing Sharia law and evicting foreign military troops from Afghanistan by jihad.
He had meanwhile gathered into his organization the scattered remnants of al Qaeda and stray Islamists from other parts of the Indian subcontinent, including terrorists wanted by Pakistan.
The Pakistani warlord continued to spread his wings to become the most powerful terrorist chief in all of western Pakistan, his grip on Islamic extremist circles second only to that of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
The Mehsed militia absorbs al Qaeda and all willing jihadis
Infuriated by the Taliban warlord's advance from Swat to within 100 kilometers of the capital, the Pakistan government resolved to go after Mehsud – first in the Swat Valley and now, in June, in his South Waziristan fortress.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that today, the Islamist mobster's strength is such that to eliminate him and his following, Pakistan will need every military resource in the book – fighter bombers, helicopter gunships, artillery and ground troops, including special forces. It can count on support from US intelligence networks, special forces and drone missile units. Our sources say that the Americans will not hesitate to loft the drones, as they did this week, following a tip-off to Mehsud's whereabouts which proved wrong.
Our counter-terror sources stress that firepower alone will not guarantee the immediate destruction of the powerful Mehsud militia numbering several thousand of hardened terrorists, an amalgam of his tribal Taliban followers and hundreds of al Qaeda fighters, most of them jihadis from Arab countries. The operation could drag on for months or even years.
Although this would out of character, the wanted Taliban warlord may decide if the pursuit is too hot on his heels to drop out of sight – as did Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in November 2001, and his Uzbek mentor, Yuldashev, who has been wandering around Central Asia and Pakistan a step ahead of his would-be captors since 2004.
The price of failure would be high: the operation instead of eliminating the Mehsud threat may have the opposite effect of fueling the conflict or even triggering a civil war more vicious and bloody than the one next door in Afghanistan.