February Issue 2008
Though he is the most powerful military commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud remains a shadowy figure with a larger-than-life reputation. One reason for his being largely unknown is his refusal to grant media interviews or be photographed. It appears he is following in the footsteps of his leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, founder of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, whose refusal to be photographed, as a matter of policy and due to Islamic reasons, has helped him evade capture.
Mehsud has given a few radio interviews, but that was a while ago when his February 2005 peace agreement with the Pakistan government was still intact and he wasn’t considered such a big threat. However, lately the Pakistani authorities have blamed him for most of the suicide bombings taking place in the country. President General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf and the American CIA also consider him the mastermind behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, even though they don’t seem to have any conclusive evidence against him. Through his spokesman Maulvi Omar, Mehsud has repeatedly denied his involvement in Bhutto’s murder and instead blamed Musharraf and his regime for the assassination.
Recently, Mehsud gave his first television interview to Al Jazeera, though he still did not reveal his face. In the interview, he made it clear that the Taliban were not a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear assets, as is being alleged. Instead, he said, the Taliban posed a threat to the US which had used nuclear weapons against humanity and was violating Pakistan’s sovereignty and moving into the tribal areas along with its allies. Arguing that the Taliban’s real war was with the US following its occupation of Afghanistan, he said they were compelled to fight against the Pakistan Army when it sent troops to their autonomous tribal areas and committed excesses against the people. He also said the Taliban didn’t believe in borders between Islamic countries as all Muslims were part of the Ummah.
I met Mehsud once, in October 2004, at the home of one of his tribal supporters in South Waziristan’s Spinkai Raghzai village, which the Pakistan Army claimed to have captured recently after fierce battles with Mehsud’s fighters. He is a short-statured, bearded man in his mid-30s. A man of few words, Mehsud commanded allegiance and respect from the 20 or so armed men surrounding him that night as he was the Ameer (head) of the Taliban in the territory populated by the Mehsud Pashtun tribe in South Waziristan. It was around this time that a young fellow tribesman Abdullah Mehsud, after his release from Guantanamo Bay, returned home and almost upstaged him.
Baitullah Mehsud, however, was not bothered as he preferred calling the shots while staying in the background. In fact, that may be the reason for his survival. Unlike him, Abdullah Mehsud craved publicity and was careless about his movements. He was finally killed by Pakistan’s security forces in Balochistan’s Zhob town last year after hogging the limelight for a while, particularly when he ordered the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers working on a hydel-power project in South Waziristan in October 2004, thereby becoming the country’s most wanted man.
Mehsud belongs to the Shabikhel sub-tribe of the Mehsud. His village, Landi Dhok, is located in Bannu, which is at some distance from the Mehsuds’ original habitat in South Waziristan. He studied at madrassahs in Bannu, Pezu and Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan. He was unable to complete his madrassah education because he crossed over to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupying troops and then on the side of the Taliban. He is not called a mullah, maulvi or maulana because he did not graduate from the madrassah.
According to Senator Maulana Saleh Shah, who also belongs to South Waziristan and is affiliated to Pakistan’s most powerful religious politician, the JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rahman, Mehsud has more than 25,000 active fighters under his command. His estimates appear to be on the high side, but it is a fact that Mehsud commands several thousand battle-hardened fighters. This was the reason that all small and large Pakistani Taliban groups operating in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur Agency, Mohmand Agency, Darra Adamkhel, Swat and elsewhere, some weeks ago, agreed to make him the head of their newly-formed umbrella organisation, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Movement of Pakistani Taliban).
Such was his influence that he forced the Pakistan government and the military to sign a peace accord with him in February 2005 at Srarogha, the same place where a military fort was recently captured by Mehsud’s fighters. Under the terms of the 2005 peace accord, the army pulled out troops from Mehsud’s area and agreed to deploy only paramilitary Frontier Corps personnel, all of whom are drawn from Pashtun tribes, at the five forts there. In fact, the peace agreement virtually handed over control of that area to Mehsud as all roadside checkpoints were removed and he and his fellow tribesmen were compensated for human and material losses sustained by them as a result of the military operations. Recently, Mehsud scrapped the peace deal after accusing the military of launching attacks against him and redeploying regular soldiers in his area in violation of the accord.
Though Mehsud is a Pakistani tribesman, he has on several occasions publicly declared that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar was his Ameerul Momineen (Commander of the Faithful) and expressed his loyalty to him. He has strong bonds with the Afghan Taliban and was once publicly accused by President Musharraf of sending fighters to Afghanistan to fight the US-led coalition forces there. Mehsud’s area isn’t on the border with Afghanistan, but he has ties to other Taliban commanders operating in the border areas and through them he has been sending fighters across the border to fight alongside the Taliban.
He has also given refuge to the Afghan Taliban and, since last year, to Uzbek fighters who were expelled from the Wana area by the pro-government tribal Taliban led by Maulvi Nazeer. The Uzbeks are members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who are headed by Tahir Yuldachev, and had taken refuge in South Waziristan after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in December 2001. Exactly, how many Arab fighters from Al-Qaeda have sought refuge in Mehsud’s area is not known, but the possibility cannot be ruled out owing to the fact that he controls a large territory beyond the reach of the government and could offer sanctuary to like-minded groups.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.