Pakistan's Taliban warlord: A profile of Baitullah Mehsud
Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud is considered in some intelligence circles as a threat as big as, or bigger than, even Osama bin Laden. His rise from a relatively little known entity in South Waziristan to the head of a full-fledged Taliban movement in Pakistan has not only grave repercussions for local security, but also for the Global War on Terror. The rise of this movement in Pakistan is not just a local disturbance, but the phenomenon of Taliban resurgence after their post-2001 setback in Afghanistan, and with Baitullah as a protégé of Mullah Omar taking charge, has international implications as well.
At the conclusion of the US-Afghan War, the militant Taliban was forced to flee from Afghanistan and found a safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, particularly in the Waziristan and Bajaur regions. It was here that the Taliban engrossed themselves in the process of reorganization and undertaking fresh recruitment directly or through madrassas (religious seminaries), which flourished after the collapse of educational system provided by the state. Emotionally charged locals, the Pashtuns, had been living well-below subsistence level for a long time under successive governments in Pakistan. A combination of abject poverty, an ultraorthodox religious zeal, and hatred for the Western powers provided a fertile nursery for this new class of militants.
The Pakistani tribal areas already had significant number of Taliban fighters present due to infiltration from adjacent Afghanistan. These bands of Taliban needed legitimacy in the form of local warlords, who shared the same ideological and militant roots as the Taliban, This has given rise to a new Pakistani-bred variant of the Taliban.
This new generation of Taliban is under the influence of al Qaeda, and is supplemented by militants of different localities like Chechens, Bosnians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Arabs, and Egyptians. These ethnic groups have started dictating terms based on the conservative interpretation of Islam as per the beliefs and practices of a distorted version of Deobandi school of thought. The foremost leader to emerge from this movement has been Baitullah Mehsud.
Baitullah combines in his personality all the essential requirements of a warlord capable of taking over this new militant movement: Afghan jihadi experience, coupled with a great reverence for Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and local legitimacy due to belonging to a reputed clan. He has led a charmed militant life, being a favored disciple of a legendary local jihadi leader, Nek Muhammad Wazir and reputed to be a well respected Afghan trained warrior. Luck has favored him in the form of opportunities being given to him due to being at the right place at the right time. Yet, his enormous infamy cannot just be explained away due to a stroke of luck; he is an enormously capable commander and a strategist of the highest order, as his negotiation history with the Pakistan government has tended to demonstrate.
This paper will examine the little that is known about Baitullah's personal background, his rise to power, and his place in Pakistan.
Manzar Zaidi is a Senior Associate Editor with The Long War Journal, dealing primarily with the analysis of the phenomenon of radicalisation in Pakistan, and the surrounding region. Manzar directs the The Long War Journal's project on Global Jihadist Movements - The Pakistani Taliban.
Correction: the first sentence in the second paragraph read: "At the conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan War, the militant Taliban was forced to flee from Afghanistan..." This has been changed to read "US-Afghan War."