Posts Tagged ‘Mehsud’

The Question of Taliban Succession

In the last few weeks, it appears Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, died and came back to life several times.

According to some claims, Mehsud died from injuries sustained from a U.S. drone attack on North Waziristan on January 14. A local government official, citing paramilitary sources, told CNN that Mehsud was seriously injured and subsequently moved to the Orakzai region, where he died and was buried more than a week ago. Pakistan’s state broadcasting agency, PTV, further confirmed this story, reporting the TTP commander was wounded in a drone strike, died, and was buried.

Although TTP spokesman spokesman Azam Tariq rejected reports about the death of Hakimullah Mahsud, calling it “a part of the propaganda by the enemy,” CNN reported that at least three Taliban sources and a government official confirmed his death on Tuesday. However, sources differed on when he died. According to Samaa Television, Taliban sources noted that “Mehsud died on February 9, 2010 while he was being transferred to Karachi. The banned outfit stated that their leader succumbed to his injuries near Multan. His body was then taken back to tribal areas.”

So in all likelihood, Hakimullah Mehsud is dead. But behind every Taliban leader is another 50 raring to take his place. So the question of the hour is, what now? Will the next leader be yet another member of the Mehsud tribe or will the new leader  represent another strategic area in the militant network? Although some reports claim that Maulvi Noor Jamal (also known as Mullah Toofan) has been appointed the new TTP leader, other sources note that he has merely assumed control for the time being, until “the leadership decides its next course of action.”

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan umbrella organization was founded in 2007, by a shura of 40 senior Taliban leaders.  Hassan Abbas wrote in the January 2008 Counterterrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, “The shura not only has representation from all of FATA’s seven tribal agencies, but also from the settled North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) districts of Swat, Bannu, Tank, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohistan, Buner and Malakand.” The late Baitullah Mehsud was appointed the new TTP leader, reportedly bringing together 13 extremist groups.

Although the TTP appeared to be a united front under Baitullah, the power struggle that reportedly ensued after his death emphasized the fragility of this alliance. Last summer, reports surfaced that Baitullah’s deputy Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman were killed in a dispute over who would succeed the Taliban leader. Although these reports were trumped when Hakimullah appeared before reporters as the new TTP chief, news agencies and analysts suggest that the question of succession did spark a power struggle within the organization.

Back in August, McClatchy News’ Saeed Shah reported that the final decision was made in order to avoid bloodshed, since Hakimullah “had threatened to form a breakaway group if he wasn’t given the title of leader.” Saifullah Mehsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Center, told the news agency, “The real power is in Waziristan, and Waliur Rehman will run things there. Its a clever compromise formula. Waliur Rehman has the real power.”

If this is still the case, then it is likely that Mullah Toofan has only assumed power for the time being, despite being the Taliban commander of the Orakzai and Kurram agencies, and those areas  becoming “more important to the Taliban because they are two key tribal districts to which militant leaders and fighters have been escaping after fleeing South Waziristan,” (according to the LA Times). The current (or soon-to-be) military operation in Orakzai ultimately means that fighters have or will be fleeing from those areas as well, potentially diluting the area’s strategic importance to the Taliban.

Not much will be known until the TTP shura makes their final decision, a scary thought given the wave of violence and revenge operations that occurred soon after Hakimullah assumed power. However, given that the last shura produced the “thug-like” and “ferocious” Hakimullah, who reportedly handled both a Kalashnikov and a Toyota pick-up with “legendary skill,” I actually wonder how senior Taliban leaders choose their amirs. Do wannabe TTP commanders duke it out, reality competition style? Is a non-Mehsud considered the underdog, the Karate Kids (if you will) of the tournament? Do they wax on/wax off incessantly in hopes of breaking the Mehsud stronghold? Do they speak in quiet whispers to their posters of Boom Boom Afridi on their ceiling, dreaming out loud? I guess we’ll never know…

Image from Dangerroom: You gotta train if you wanna beat out those damn Mehsuds.

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BBC News: The South Waziristan Offensive

BBC News: The South Waziristan Offensive

Day 3 of the Army’s much-anticipated ground offensive in South Waziristan was underway Monday, and Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas met with reporters to update them on the operation’s progress. According to news agencies, the Pakistan Army is “ahead of schedule” by 36 hours, advancing up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) into the mountainous area. In the last 24 hours, Abbas added, forces have “enveloped” Kotkai, the town of Taliban commander Qari Hussain, while guerrillas have “taken positions on mountains.” According to the military spokesman, 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the offensive launched Saturday. The spokesman from the Taliban’s camp, not surprisingly, offered contradictory numbers, countering that militants have inflicted “heavy casualties” on government troops. Given that there is no way to verify either statements [reporters are barred from South Waziristan], I wanted to provide a breakdown of what we do know, [or at least what we know better]:

1. The Rah-e-Nijat offensive [“Path to Salvation”] has been a long time coming. In June 2009, the military announced this new offensive into South Waziristan, but only unleashed artillery and air strikes on the area, weakening the militant stronghold but certainly not defeating it. There were several reasons for this, but I shall highlight one of the main ones. In June, a spokesman from Gul Bahadur‘s militant group in North Waziristan [a rival of Mehsud’s Taliban] announced they were scrapping their peace deal “because of U.S. drone strikes in the region.” The Taliban faction had initially agreed to sit on the sidelines during the military’s South Waziristan offensive, but the disintegration of the deal complicated the Army’s chance at success in the region. As the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan noted back in July, “no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.”

However, according to news agencies, the army has once again “come to an understanding” with Bahadur’s group as well as the Taliban faction of Maulvi Nasir to keep them from fighting against the government during the offensive. According to the Associated Press, not only do the groups agree to not join the Mehsud Taliban’s forces, “They will also allow the army to move through their own lands unimpeded, giving the military additional fronts from which to attack the Taliban.” The news agency added, “The agreements underscore Pakistan’s past practice of targeting only militant groups that attack the government or its forces inside Pakistan.” The issue of U.S. and NATO troops across the border is therefore a different matter entirely, and will probably mean the current offensive will have little to no impact on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Moreover, while the Army is terming this as no more than an “understanding,” it will be interesting to see how this loose alliance will pan out in the long-term. Because the Army must break up the enemy, the deal is tactically necessary in the short-term, but may be strategically problematic later on.

2. Who is the Army fighting in the offensive? We have just established who the military is not fighting in this operation. In Rah-e-Nijat, being termed “the mother of all battles,” the Army is seeking to destroy the Taliban faction of the late Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in August and succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud. The militants are said to number between 5,000 – 15,000.

This number includes “some hundred” to 2,000 pissed off Uzbek fighters. According to Dawn, “The reported death of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Tahir Yuldashev in a drone attack in South Waziristan in August was a big blow to the violent foreign militant group that was waging a fierce campaign against Pakistan and its state agencies.” The Uzbek militants and other foreign fighters will reportedly “provide some stiff resistance,” mainly because they “have few places they can escape to,” noted a Dawn editorial.

The new Mehsud [who I dubbed Mehsud 2.0 in this post] recently vowed to launch a wave of attacks in Pakistan’s main cities, a threat we saw come to life last week. The breadth and reach of the recent violence, though, means the Mehsud Taliban has alliances with militant groups in  other parts of the country, particularly in Punjab, [i.e., the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi and the Jaish-e-Muhammad]. Therefore, although the military is targeting the Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan, it is unlikely attacks in major cities will stop, unless the government plans to target these organizations as well. [This point was illustrated Tuesday, when suicide bombers struck Islamabad’s International Islamic University.]

3. The Army’s sent 28,000 additional troops to South Waziristan. That’s good right? On paper, sure. Pakistan’s forces against roughly 10,000 militants is a ratio of 3:1. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill conventional warfare. This is counterinsurgency. According to a defense analyst who spoke to NPR Monday, the number of troops are far “too low,” and such numbers “will force them into guerrilla warfare that could last for years.” Over at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio cited a study done by Sameer Lalwani at the New America Foundation, who noted, “Between 370,000 and 430,000 more troops would be needed in the FATA and the NWFP region to meet the minimum force-to-population ratios prescribed by counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, much higher than current Pakistani deployments of 150,000 [overall in the region].” This is in part due to the “demographic and topographic terrain” of the region which are ideal for protracted insurgency and therefore call for much “higher than average force ratios and far more military assets than Pakistan possesses.”

With winter fast-approaching, time is not on the Army’s side, though Newsline‘s Nadir Hassan conceded, “the harsh conditions may be to the army’s benefit. For over two decades, until a ceasefire was negotiated in 2003, Pakistan’s troops had been fighting the Indians to a standstill in Siachen. The topography and weather of Siachen is like South Waziristan on steroids and the experience should give an advantage to the army.” At the same time, though, the military has been and will continue to face stiff resistance from militants in the region, ultimately meaning the operation will last longer than the predicted few weeks.

What is still unclear is the fate of the over 170,000 people displaced by the South Waziristan operation, [also highlighted at the Zeitgeist Politics]. Families began leaving the region in June, following the military’s announcement of Rah-e-Nijat, and settling mainly in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. According to McClatchy News, “The refugees are being offered no food, blankets or other aid, however, no camps have been set up for them and resentment against the government and army is growing fast. The government halted aid in September, apparently in an attempt to prevent it from making its way into the hands of the Taliban.” In an interview with BBC News Monday, correspondent Syed Shoaib Hasan echoed that adequate supplies have not been provided so far to the rising number of IDPs, and spoke further on the issue of militants potentially hiding amongst the displaced. Despite the registration points that have been set up, he noted, “it is very difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is not.”

Given that Waziristan has never been truly “conquered,” and recent offensives have only been “partially successful,” [ending in peace deals rather than military control], it seems we have a tough, wintry road ahead of us.

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28 and Commander of the Taliban. Eat your heart out, Federer.

28 and Commander of the Taliban. Eat your heart out, Federer.

So it’s official. On Tuesday, Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, two top Taliban commanders, finally confirmed the death of Baitullah Mehsud, thus laying the seemingly endless he said-(s)he said statements to rest. The Wall Street Journal cited “reporters who said they recognized the leaders’ voices,” noting Mehsud died of injuries inflicted from an earlier U.S. drone strike this past Sunday.

So what about Hakimullah’s past phone call to news agencies, claiming Baitullah was alive? Oh, that. According to him, he wasn’t technically lying. Baitullah Mehsud wasn’t dead after the purported U.S. drone strike – he was just in a coma. Hakimullah was quoted by media outlets saying, “He was wounded. He got the wounds in a drone strike and he was martyred two days ago.” Waliur Rehman conveniently echoed the same statement.

In all likelihood, Baitullah Mehsud probably died on August 5 in the U.S. drone strike, a story affirmed by another senior TTP commander who spoke to The News from an undisclosed location. However, the Taliban leadership may have been biding time until a new successor could be named. The aforementioned commander told The News, “We did not want to confirm his death earlier as it could have disheartened our people present everywhere in the country…The Taliban from Afghanistan played a key role in resolving differences among various TTP commanders. They continued their talks with the Mehsud Taliban Shura and then negotiated with each and every commander.”

According to the unnamed commander, Hakimullah Mehsud “had been unanimously made the TTP chief by its Shura, while Maulana Waliur Rehman was named leader of the Mehsud Taliban in South Waziristan.” The joint statement by Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman seemed therefore intended to demonstrate Taliban unity in the face of rumors suggesting otherwise. In fact, of the many unconfirmed reports that surfaced in the past few weeks, one story reported that Hakimullah and Waliur had killed each other in a shootout for Baitullah’s succession, an allegation Hakimullah himself lay to rest by speaking to reporters. On Tuesday, Waliur Rehman asserted, “Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences.”

So out with the old Mehsud, in with the new…Mehsud. As analysts and pundits spar over what all this means for the Taliban leadership and the military offensive, let’s take a moment to learn more about Mehsud V.2. Here’s what we know:

  • His real name is Zulfiqar Mehsud. Hakimullah is his nom de guerre. Kind of like a stage name. Like Cher.
  • According to the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan, he was born in the Kotkai region, near the town of Jandola in South Waziristan. His only schooling was at a small village madrassa in Hangu district, reportedly the same school Baitullah Mehsud dropped out from.
  • At 28 years old, he was known as Baitullah’s most “ferocious” deputy, handling both a Kalashnikov and a Toyota pick-up with legendary skill. The BBC’s correspondent once took a drive with him and noted, “To demonstrate his skill with the vehicle, he drove like a man possessed, manoeuvring around razor sharp bends at impossible speeds. He finished the demonstration by braking inches short of a several hundred foot drop.” So if this new career doesn’t pan out, I hear Fast & the Furious IV [3-D] may need stunt drivers.
  • His first press conference was held in November 2008 in Orakzai Agency, [he became Baitullah’s chief spokesman in October 2007]. A GEO TV reporter described meeting him, “Hakimullah is a lively man. He told us he could give us two gifts. One was the Humvee military vehicle that his fighters had captured during a recent raid in Khyber Agency on an Afghanistan-bound supply convoy for Nato forces. The other was a jeep that his men had snatched from UN employees in Khyber Agency.” Charming.
  • He was the militant commander for three tribal agencies – Khyber, Kurram, and Orakzai. He reportedly masterminded the campaign against NATO convoys in Khyber and Peshawar, and claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Peshawar Pearl-Continental Hotel.

Hakimullah may have come to power on the coattails of a Taliban power struggle, exposing rifts that should be further exploited by the Pakistani military, but he is not new to the Taliban structure, and he is certainly not unfamiliar with Baitullah’s agenda. Although his ability to command the TTP could be moot if the organization has been permanently damaged, we should not take this appointment lightly.

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CS Monitor: Baitullah Mehsud speaking to reporters in May 2008

CS Monitor: Baitullah Mehsud speaking to reporters in May 2008

On Friday, news agencies released “unconfirmed” reports that Tehreek-e-Taliban head, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in South Waziristan early Wednesday. As the day went on, officials released a stream of ambiguous and vague statements. Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quoted saying, “We suspect he was killed in the missile strike…We have some information, but we don’t have material evidence to confirm it.” A senior U.S. official told ABC News, meanwhile, that there was “a 95 percent chance that Mehsud was among those killed in the missile strike.”

Although a Taliban commander and aide later told the Associated Press by phone that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife had been killed in the drone strike [intelligence sources also confirmed this fact, saying his body had already been buried], Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters that authorities would travel to the site of the death in order to “to be 100 percent sure.” CNN‘s correspondent further noted that Pakistani officials will also conduct a DNA test in order to fully verify this development.

Why the caution? In June, Baitullah Mehsud was reportedly almost killed after he attended a funeral in Waziristan, and a similar report also circulated last September. However, the fact that Mehsud “has shown up alive after previous near-misses,” ultimately undermines Pakistan’s credibility. Therefore, despite officials being nearly 100%, both Pakistani and U.S. officials aren’t taking any chances.

In the aftermath of what is still considered an alleged death, it is important to consider two things: First, who was this shadowy figure, aside from being the leader of the Pakistani Taliban? Secondly, how will his death impact the Taliban and the military’s offensive?

Who Was Baitullah Mehsud?

  • The Taliban leader was in his mid-late 30s and hailed from the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan.
  • He was known to suffer from diabetes, an illness that led sources to wrongly claim he died of kidney failure in September.
  • The UK Telegraph described him as “physically unimposing,” while the BBC‘s Syed Shoaib Hasan said when he went to interview him in May 2008, “he found himself sitting down before a short, plump, bearded man, reluctant to allow his picture to be taken.”
  • Based in South Waziristan, Mehsud proclaimed himself the leader of the TTP in 2007, an umbrella organization that was allied with with North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar and South Waziristan leader Mullah Nazir to form the Council of United Mujahideen, a group that had pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and the overall Taliban commander, Mullah Omar.
  • The Telegraph noted, “Mehsud became Public Enemy Number One after launching suicide attacks in 2007 against the army and politicians after commandos stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque.”

The Impact of Mehsud’s Death

Most officials in U.S. and Pakistan seemed unanimous in saying that Mehsud’s death would be both a tactical and strategic victory against the Pakistani Taliban. Baitullah was adept at connecting various militant groups and organizations, often transcending tribes, borders, and regions to form alliances. Many therefore believe his death will lead to a power struggle, ultimately leading to cracks in the organization. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Roshtam Shah Mohmand, a former NWFP chief secretary, who asserted, “I don’t think the TTP movement would remain intact [without Mehsud]…I think no other leader would have the same charisma, appeal, popularity, and stature.”

However, Juan Cole, author of the Informed Comment, provided a different argument:

Some analysts believe in the centrality of leadership cadres in insurgencies. But I’d just point out that the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq in May of 2006 had no effect whatsoever on fundamentalist guerrilla attacks in that country….Groups like Hamas and the Taliban have a complicated relationship to clans and cliques that easily survive the assassination of even an important leader.

My own assessment tows the line somewhere between Cole’s and the official statements. The TTP and its allies formed a highly decentralized power structure. Given this fact, it is likely that Mehsud’s death will only have a marginal real impact on the organization, particularly since militants are reportedly already meeting to decide on a successor (candidates include his deputy Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain Mehsud [the commander known to recruit children into the Taliban], North Waziristan leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and Bajaur Taliban sub-commander Waliur Rahman). It would be naive to suggest that Mehsud’s death came as a surprise to the Pakistani Taliban – he was, after all, on the top of both the U.S. and Pakistan’s Most Wanted lists. And, noted the BBC, “the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan still remains the major arbiter in settling questions of succession among the Pakistani militant groups.”

At the same time, Mehsud’s death, if confirmed, still represents a pretty hefty symbolic victory for Pakistan. In a war of perceptions, such a fact is significant. Much of the Pakistani military’s tactical success going into South Waziristan remained contingent on taking out high-level targets like Mehsud. Officials must therefore frame his death to show the increasing weakness of the TTP, and the military’s comparative strength, thereby turning a tactical victory into a potential strategic success. However, the Pakistan government also needs to step up and provide services within this vacuum. As Cole noted, “Something like 80% of the time, the only way to defeat an insurgency is to find a political formula acceptable to it…Where it is defeated, isolating it from its recruiting pool is important.”

What are your own thoughts – will Baitullah Mehsud’s death have a major impact on Pakistan’s war on the Taliban, or only a marginal effect?

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Image Credit: NY Times, Soldiers on patrol in Swat

On Tuesday, news agencies cited a militant spokesman from Hafiz Gul Bahadur‘s group in North Waziristan, who said they were “scrapping” their peace deal with the government because of U.S. drone strikes in the region. The Taliban faction had initially agreed to stay on the sidelines during the offensive against Baitullah Mehsud in neighboring South Warizistan.

However, Bahadur’s spokesman Ahmedullah Ahmedi [who spoke over the phone from an undisclosed location] told reporters, “Our leadership has decided that as long as U.S. drone attacks continue and security forces stay here, there will be no peace agreement.” The BBC also cited him adding that the  group “would now carry out attacks on military targets in the region until the army left and U.S. drones strikes were halted.”

In the past, reported the Wall Street Journal, the rivalry between the two militant commanders and the peace deal  had helped Pakistan’s military focus on Mehsud. Now, noted the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan the end of the agreement “leaves the army facing a near impossible task – no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.” The Pakistani government on Tuesday sought to quell such speculation, claiming the peace deal had been signed with the tribal elders and not with Taliban militants. In an interview with BBC World Radio yesterday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik further insisted that countering Bahadur’s group would not be “that difficult,” affirming, “we will take over” [the Waziristan area].

Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive has garnered a continuous stream of news headlines. However, given that journalists have largely been denied access to the frontline, media reports are often a regurgitation of contradictory information provided by both military and militant spokesmen. The difficulty is always extracting the “truth” from what both sides want us to believe. For example, noted the NY Times, “For the past month and a half, the Pakistani military has claimed success in retaking the Swat Valley from the Taliban, clawing back its own territory from insurgents who only a short time ago were extending their reach toward the heartland of the country.”

However, the news agency on June 28 offered a rare glimpse into Swat’s aftermath, noting, “…from a helicopter flying low over the valley last week, the low-rise buildings of Mingora…now deserted and under a 24-hour curfew, appeared unscathed. In the surrounding countryside, farmers had harvested wheat and red onions on their unscarred land.” The NYT added, “All that is testament to the fact that the Taliban mostly melted away without a major fight, possibly to return when the military withdraws or to fight elsewhere, military analysts say.”

This snapshot of Swat, coupled with the fact that the military has failed to kill or capture a top Taliban commander, makes the idea of “success” all the more abstract, and the new push into “the far more treacherous terrain” of South Waziristan worrisome. Are we essentially going down the same inconclusive path of military offensives past? Rehman Malik, in his talk with BBC World Radio, reassured the skeptics by simply noting, “measures have been taken to prevent these militants from regrouping,” (he would not specify the measures so as not to compromise the secrecy of the mission).

This is not to say the military has not made gains in this new offensive. In fact, in the perception management side of the war, the Pakistani Army has indicated a new resolve in countering militancy, most interestingly demonstrated by the names of these military offensives. In a recent study by Shuja Nawaz entitled, FATA – A Most Dangerous Place, he wrote, “In the Swat district, the first operation by the regular army was named Operation Mountain Viper, not exactly a name that inspired participants or local residents or drew them into the task for fighting Islamist militants…” However, the new commander of the troops in Swat, Maj. Gen. Janjua in 2007 “launched a fresh operation named Rah-e-Haq or the Path to Truth (i.e., the true Islamic faith), aimed at wresting the Islamic ground from the insurgents by claiming to act in the name of the true Islam.”

The army’s recent offensive titles indicate a further evolution of this trend. On May 16, 2009, the military announced that Operation Rah-e-Haq (4) in Malakand would be renamed Operation Rah-e-Rast, or the Path to Righteousness. Most recently, Rah-e-Nijaat, or the Path to Salvation, was attached to the military’s operation in South Waziristan. Last week, COAS Gen. Ashfaq Kayani told reporters, “We are conducting this operation to bring misguided people back on the right path…They are not fighting for Islam. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and we know how to protect it.”

What seems to be occurring therefore, is an effort on the military’s part to reframe the war in a language digestible by the public. They are challenging the convoluted interpretations of Islam and Sharia espoused by these Taliban-linked militants, and are no longer allowing them to hijack and leverage this space. However, while certainly a part of unconventional warfare, winning will still take more than just good PR. As Shuja Nawaz noted, “Troops, training, and equipment are one part of a two-part approach to counterinsurgency. The other, and some might say more important part is the underlying political dynamic and governance, without which military actions will fail to gain traction or produce a lasting solution.” In our case, it means we once again concede to the militants.

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Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Beitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Manawan police academy in Punjab province, which killed at least 13 people, including at least eight recruits and instructors, and wounded more than 100. Mehsud reportedly told Reuters by telephone, “Yes, we have carried out this attack,” asserting that it was “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the U.S. in collaboration with Pakistan on our people.” According to BBC News, the TTP leader also claimed responsibility for two other recent deadly attacks – a suicide attack on a security convoy in Bannu on Monday and the attack on the Islamabad police station on March 25. He noted these attacks would continue “until the Pakistan government stops supporting the Americans.” Other media agencies reported the militant head also threatened to attack Washington, warning, “Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world.”

Mehsud’s announcement seem to adhere to Interior Minister Rehman Malik‘s statements yesterday, when he said the perpetrators of the Manawan police academy attack had “rented an apartment in Lahore but came from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the west.” According to GEO News, Malik noted the assailants had planned the attack in South Waziristan, and that one of the captured gunmen was an Afghan national. However, prior to Mehsud’s announcement today, the NY Times had reported, “It seemed just as likely that the attacks had been perpetrated by Punjabi militant groups, like Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was blamed for the attacks last year in Mumbai, India, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that recruits in southern Punjab but in recent years moved to the tribal areas to train alongside Al Qaeda.” The LeT was also suspected in a hauntingly similar attack this month on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Monday’s attack on the police academy was the second major attack in Punjab in a month. Both attacks aimed to highlight the powerlessness of the government and its security forces, although yesterday’s incident was “resolved” by paramilitary troops, who struck back quickly, surrounding the police academy and fiercely attacking the militants. The government called the resolution of the eight-hour siege a “relative success.”

After following the news yesterday and today, what ultimately disturbed me was not that the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, but that there were so many potential perpetrators. Beitullah Mehsud’s announcement reminded us of how many groups are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how easily they can coordinate with one another. Although they may be separate organizations, the line between them has become increasingly blurred. In February 2009, the Long War Journal noted that there have been “numerous reports of joint operations between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, and other terror groups.” And, although the Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT] has historically had a more localized agenda [fighting in Kashmir], analysts after the Mumbai attacks noted the organization has evolved to become a greater, more overarching threat, one that has bought into the AQ vision. The Tehreek-e-Taliban meanwhile is a loose alliance of about 13 Islamist militant groups based near the Afghan border, with reported links to the Afghan Taliban. According to Reuters, “While some of the groups are fighting for implementation of a puritanical Taliban-like order, others are involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping.” Mehsud is Pakistan’s most-wanted militant, and the U.S. has publicized a $5 million award for his arrest, [see CHUP’s past post on him].

What is frightening is that these groups are no longer confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas; in fact, that has been the reality for some time now. Their operations are bleeding into our country, they are threatening our citizens, and they aim to destabilize our state further. The recent political turmoil in Pakistan, [which may have eased [temporarily] today with the restoration of Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab] only further exacerbated the power vacuum in the nation – ultimately making us more vulnerable to such attacks. By targeting relatively safe cities like Lahore, these organizations aim to entrench the perception that nowhere in Pakistan is safe. By targeting our police forces [besides the Manawan attack, there was also the Islamabad police station bombing and last week’s attack on a mosque near a tribal police checkpoint], they are not only highlighting the weaknesses in our security structure, but are intimidating members of these forces. The NY Times quoted one angry young recruit yesterday, who told the news agency, “I’m not joining the police…I love my life. No one wants to be here anymore. We’re taking off our uniforms and going home.”

Although it was an improvement that Pakistan’s elite forces were able to swoop in and prevail yesterday, [considering that during the Lahore attack, the assailants got away], the real victory will come when these incidents are not just quelled but actually prevented. Let’s hope that with one political crisis averted, that can now happen.

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Baitullah Mehsud: Dead?

News sources are reporting that Baitullah Mehsud, the elusive head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) [also known as the Pakistani Taliban] died of kidney failure. According to CNN, “An unnamed Islamabad-based source with connections within the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan said Mehsud died about 1 a.m. Wednesday. Military officials in the field confirmed to CNN that Mehsud had died.” Media outlets had previously speculated over Mehsud’s recent disappearance. The Nation reported today, “Well-informed sources told The Nation that the months long disappearance of the top Pakistani Taliban commander were casting doubts over his deteriorating health.”

Dawn [link is now gone] also reported that the TTP leader had died from kidney failure, adding, “Baitullah Mehsud was known to be suffering from diabetes and hypertension.” However, these reports have not been independently confirmed, and the militant organization is [not surprisingly] denying he is dead. The Nation also cited “an insider source” that said Mehsud did not disappear due to health reasons, but because of the military offensive in the tribal areas.

According to CNN, Mehsud’s death (if reports are true) “would leave a power vacuum within the Mehsud tribe and the Pakistani Taliban…Since there was no second in command of the Mehsud tribe, tribal splits are expected.” Analysts predict a power struggle to appoint the next leader of the TTP.

UPDATE [10/1]: Updated reports from Dawn and the AFP noted that despite reports that Mehsud had died, “officials and militant sources insisted he was still alive.” These sources reportedly told the AFP that Mehsud is seriously ill with diabetes and may be in a coma. Taliban commander Rahim Burki told the news agency, “He is only suffering from a bout of diabetes. He is under treatment but he will be all right.” Another commander said, “Baitullah needs medical attention two or three times a week and he is growing weaker.”

CHUP will cover this story as it is updated. For more information on Baitullah Mehsud, please click here to read CHUP’s backgrounder on the militant leader. [Image from the AFP]

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New post 9/30: Baitullah Mehsud: Dead? Click here to read CHUP’s latest piece.
Tonight, CBS Evening News released rare images of Pakistan’s elusive and dangerous Taliban-linked militant, Baitullah Mehsud [see website for video]. According to the evening broadcast, the pictures are “the first ever” to surface of the alleged mastermind behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and the leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban, the umbrella organization of militant groups in Pakistan, [see past backgroounder on Mehsud]. Analysts have noted that Mehsud “threatens to eclipse Osama bin Laden as the world’s top terrorist.” Christine Fair, of RAND Corp., called the militant a “violence entrepreneur” who is running a training camp for suicide bombers in the FATA region. She told CBS, “He may not be out there cultivating people to send them abroad, but people abroad may seek him out for the operations that they conduct back home or elsewhere.” Unlike Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are visible figures in the jihadist community and use propaganda to assert their power, Mehsud is a secretive tribal fighter who is cloaked in mystery. However, the militant has asserted, “We want to eradicate Britain and America …We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London.” CBS News concluded, “While Mehsud’s emergence from the shadows is worrisome, U.S. officials hope there’s an upside. As one intelligence analyst put it, if he makes himself more visible, he’ll be easier to eliminate.”
The CBS News piece is significant not just because it provides a rare glimpse of the militant leader, but also because it further affirms that this growing threat is in our backyard. It is no longer the fight that is just “occurring in the mountains,” that is just focused against Pakistani security forces. This is a battle that has spilled over into our cities and that threatens our families and our livelihood. The difference between bin Laden and the overarching Al Qaeda organization is that their network is largely virtual – their influence and connections mainly occur online, in jihadist password-protected chat rooms and via internet propaganda. The Tehreek-e-Taliban and Mehsud, in contrast, are waging a tangible war that has immediate local and national ramifications. Suicide bombers are not solely recruited or trained online, but in physical camps located in the northern tribal areas. The government, in its focus on internal bickering and details, cannot continue to avoid this problem, because it will not go away.

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