On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Taliban commander Qari Zainuddin was shot dead in Dera Ismail Khan. According to the NY Times, “The initial investigation indicated that the gunman was a guard named Gulbadin Mehsud who was thought to have been loyal to Mr. Zainuddin.” Dawn, in its coverage, noted the attacker entered the compound after morning prayers “and opened indiscriminate fire when they were asleep, killing Zainuddin on the spot.” The alleged attacker escaped after the attack, which also wounded another guard.
News agencies primarily framed the incident in light of Tehreek-e-Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud, noting Zainuddin was considered his “chief rival.” Al Jazeera quoted one of Zainuddin’s aides, Baz Mohammed, who vowed to avenge his death, asserting, “It was definitely Baitullah’s man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job.” Earlier this month, Zainuddin reportedly criticized Mehsud following an attack on a mosque that killed 33 people. He told the Associated Press, “Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism…Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism.”
The purported rivalry between Mehsud and Zainuddin is interesting and goes much deeper than last month’s statement. Zainuddin, also a member of the Mehsud tribe, split from the Tehreek-e-Taliban nine months ago, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph. The NY Times reported that he had formed an alliance with Turkestan Bhaitani, an older Taliban fighter who had switched sides to ally with the government, [although the Pakistani military ‘officially’ denies supporting either Zainuddin or Bhaitani].
According to the Daily Times, Zainuddin was also the self-appointed successor of his cousin Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander best known for masterminding the October 2004 kidnapping of two Chinese engineers in Pakistan. He was killed in 2007 when security forces raided his hideout in Balochistan. After his death, Baitullah Mehsud emerged as the leading Taliban commander in the region, [the power base is located in South Waziristan], but sources note a splinter group claiming to be the successors of Abdullah [as well as the “real” Taliban] also formed at this time.
In fact, noted both the Daily Times and the Long War Journal, Zainuddin used posters with images of Abdullah Mehsud as well as pamphlets vilifying Baitullah Mehsud in order to recruit followers. The Daily Times cited one pamphlet distributed in Tank and South Waziristan on March 16, which said, “Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not allow suicide attacks, which his group is perpetrating…Our doors are open to all those who have suffered injustice at the hands of Baitullah. We also warn people against keeping contacts with Baitullah or facilitating him in prolonging his rule.”
This past month, reported the NY Times, both Zainuddin and Bhaitani organized a tribal jirga with as many as 100 elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank in an effort to rally further opposition to Baitullah Mehsud. And, although Zainuddin said he commanded around 3,000 fighters, there is also no confirmation of these claims, [in fact, the Long War Journal suggests he had inflated the number to portray a greater influence and capability than was actually the case].
Here’s what we do know: 1. Zainuddin’s assassination Tuesday signified an escalation in the rivalry and the long-standing tit-for-tat murder campaign between Baitullah Mehsud and fraction groups. Dawn reported a successor has already been appointed to replace Zainuddin. However, although Baz Mohammed indicated the murder would strengthen “their resolve to wage war against Baitullah,” other news sources indicate it may instead intimidate others from joining the anti-Mehsud group.
According to the Guardian, as he came to power, Baitullah had in fact “demonstrated his utter ruthlessness by killing hundreds of the Mehsud tribe’s traditional elders…who might have led resistance.” McClatchy News spoke to around a dozen Mehsud chiefs in separate meetings. One tribal chief told the news agency, “Not since the time of Alexander the Great have the Mehsud people suffered such slavery…We want to stand with Zainuddin but we don’t trust the government. Three times in the past, they have made deals with Baitullah Mehsud…We are scared that the generals will make up with him again.”
2. Although the Pakistani military officially denies this, most sources report the rise of these anti-Mehsud groups has been part of the state’s strategy to isolate Baitullah Mehsud and his supporters, particularly since “Many believe that Mehsud can be defeated only by a member of his own clan,” noted McClatchy.
This information is problematic, to say the least. Just because Zainuddin and Bhaitani said their fighters would remain neutral against any government offensive against Mehsud’s network does not mean their own motives are clean and rosy. In fact, in an interview with McClatchy News this month, Zainuddin noted he diverged with Baitullah on two fundamental points: the use of suicide bombing and attacks on Pakistan, since, as he noted, “Islam doesn’t give permission to fight against a Muslim country.” However, the late commander had also pledged to send his forces into Afghanistan once Mehsud is vanquished to expel international forces. He told McClatchy, “The whole Muslim world should come together because all infidels have come together against Islam. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Muslims must protect ourselves…The problem is that we cannot go to Afghanistan these days because we have had to deal with Baitullah.”
So ultimately, in an effort to defeat a short-term but dangerous enemy, we are once again breeding further militancy, a phenomenon that will undoubtedly haunt us [and the West] in the long-run. While I understand the military may have to resort to such measures to create fissures in the militant network, the ramifications and the true benefits of such a strategy must be further weighed. In our effort to take back our country, we need to be aware of whose hands we are placing our future.
As Pakistan prepares to launch its offensive into South Waziristan and resolutely target Baitullah Mehsud, it is abundantly clear that this conflict is not black-and-white, a fact I tried to make clear in my above analysis. It is made increasingly more complex amid news of continuing U.S. drone strikes. Late Tuesday, media outlets reported that 45 people were killed in an alleged drone attack in South Waziristan. According to the NY Times, “If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft” in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a fact sure to exacerbate anti-American sentiment in the region.