Bigger Than Bin Laden


Ever since he was labelled more dangerous than Osama bin Laden, Beitullah Mehsud has been the single greatest target of US drone attacks. Remarkably, he has evaded death on every occasion, including the latest — and deadliest — US drone attack in Pakistan. While that strike failed to kill Mehsud, it did leave the charred remains of anywhere between 40 and 100 people scattered amid the wreckage of a South Waziristan mosque.

This has become a dirty war, and neither insurgents nor counter-insurgents have hesitated to attack places of worship.

That the Taliban leader has survived massive operations from a 150,000-strong Pakistan Army, some of the most sophisticated warplanes in the United States’ arsenal, and a US$5 million bounty on his head has only heightened his prestige.

And it is precisely for this prestige that Pakistani authorities have been seeking to eliminate him.

Divisions within the rank of the Taliban and its allies in the North Western Frontier Province are not new. From the very outset, around the time of the Taliban exodus from Afghanistan in October 2001, there were deep fissures between the different regional insurgency groups based on tribal or warlord affiliations.

The Pakistan Government has tried to exploit those divisions ever since.

For at least the past two years, Pakistan authorities have sought to attribute most of the terrorism that occurs in this troubled nation to Beitullah Mehsud. According to the North Western Frontier Province Governor, Owais Ahmed Ghani, Mehsud is "the root cause of all the evil".

Recently, Mehsud took the unusual step of attending a very public funeral, along with hundreds of others, to mourn the death of Qari Hussein, a key lieutenant and his presumptive heir who was killed in a drone attack.

Hussein was not the only Taliban commander with leadership pretensions to have met his maker recently.

Qari Zainuddin, who hails from the same powerful clan of South Waziristan as Mehsud, was assassinated last week by one of his bodyguards, believed to be a Beitullah Mehsud infiltrator. Zainuddin, who some informed analysts and retired officers contacted by claim was on the Army’s payroll, was Mehsud’s most vocal critic from within the Pakistan Taliban movement.

On the weekend prior to his death, Zainuddin had given several interviews to Pakistani media where he criticised Mehsud’s war on Pakistan, his use of suicide bombers and the high death rate among ordinary Muslim Pakistanis.

Zainuddin’s death a mere days after those interviews may well be the most important in South Waziristan — and arguably the entire Federally Administered Tribal Areas — since the Taliban wiped out around 100 of Waziristan’s tribal elders, transforming Waziristan into its most powerful stronghold.

Zainuddin’s murder also represents a setback for the Pakistan Army as it seeks to rein in the insurgency. Because Zainuddin hailed from the same clan as Mehsud and garnered strong support from the rival Battani clan, he was considered the most credible prospect for bringing the Taliban under the army’s influence.

However, Zainuddin’s leadership potential was still to be realised and he remained a marginal voice in the movement up until his demise. The fact that one of his very own guards sacrificed himself to remove one of Mehsud’s enemies will reverberate through the Pakhtun tribal communities of the North Western Frontier Province. It sends the message that Mehsud remains powerful and his men loyal.

Zainuddin was critical of Mehsud’s leadership, particularly the war within Pakistan that has seen scores of civilians, tribal chiefs and religious scholars murdered or intimidated over the past eight years. Significantly, he was not opposed to Taliban operations in Afghanistan. But he, along with a few allied commanders, accused Mehsud of being an agent of foreign powers.

Proponents of this view, such as the retired army colonel who spoke to off the record recently, cite the chaotic nature of the region, its porous border with Afghanistan and the wide, largely vacant deserts of Balochistan to the south that make it easy for covert foreign actors to infiltrate. Not to forget, of course, the history of foreign power intrigue in Pakistan which has seen the United States, Saudi Arabia — and even China and possibly Israel — support Islamic militants to wage war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Yet, at its core, the Pakistan Government’s refusal to accept home grown origins for the Taliban’s violence reflects the fact that it has yet to acknowledge the radicalisation of the population, particularly among the poor in remote and rural Pakistan and the slums of its big cities.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in regions of the North Western Frontier Province and tribal areas nominally under Government control.

In the frontline area of Dera Adam Khel, tribal militias have been formed to meet the Taliban threat. Some are seeking to negotiate an end to hostilities with the Taliban, but this alone is unlikely to end the insurgency because these militias operate independently of state authorities and often have ideological sympathies with the Taliban.

In Swat, many rank and file Taliban have fled to remote mountain areas. Pakistan claims to have cornered the Swat Taliban’s chief leader Maulana Fazlullah and killed a key lieutenant, Shah Doran, who arranged the incendiary radio broadcasts threatening those who did not obey the Taliban’s strict social precepts. But Fazlullah and most of the other Swat leadership remain at large.

In comparison to the army in the tribal areas, law enforcement agencies have had more success tracking down the Taliban in Pakistan’s major capitals.

Five alleged operatives of Beitullah Mehsud, accused of raising money through extortion and kidnappings, were arrested in Karachi this week. Authorities say they have also arrested several Taliban operatives in connection to recent suicide attacks in Lahore and Islamabad.

But so far, the man most wanted remains at large.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.