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.

Click to read Pakistan's Taliban warlord: A profile of Baitullah Mehsud.

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."


READER COMMENTS: "Pakistan's Taliban warlord: A profile of Baitullah Mehsud"

Posted by F. B. Bruton at October 1, 2008 10:03 AM ET:

in the second graf where you say "At the conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan War, the militant Taliban was forced to flee from Afghanistan".
don't you mean the U.S.-Afghan war?

Posted by Neo at October 1, 2008 10:41 AM ET:

It's not inaction that is the problem. If we attacked the Taliban across the boarder both the Pakistani people and government will come down on the side of the militants. That is a political certainty that limits what we can do. It's very frustrating, but you don't turn the Pakistani's against you unless they decide to fully support the extremists. I'm afraid the direct action you call for would force the condition you most want to avoid, an all out war with Pakistan along with an Islamist takeover of the government.

Things are not going well, but the Pakistani government is less likely to fall than it appeared to be this time last year. In the last year the Taliban has done a lot to poison its relationship with the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis are in an escalating fight with the Taliban, the outcome of which is uncertain. The Taliban has more fighters but doesn't have the political momentum it had a year ago.

I have no problem with prodding the Pakistanis. If they sit down on this again, which is likely? Than we go give the Taliban a swat in the nose. The Taliban's response usually is to indiscriminately attack everyone, especially the Pakistanis. We will just have to keep a close watch on things to see if this dynamic shows improvement or further disintegrates.

Posted by David M at October 1, 2008 11:24 AM ET:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/01/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by Bill Roggio at October 1, 2008 11:25 AM ET:

F. B. Bruton, you are correct, the correction has been made and noted.

Posted by UJMi at October 1, 2008 3:59 PM ET:

30,000! Its more than some serious exaggeration!

And about Nek Muhamamd, please note that Nek Muhammad was nothing more than a person who took money from these "foreigners" and gave them cover in his area. If you even go back to his background, he had no war experience, he was simply a simple waiter at a small restaurant in a nearby city just two-three years before the whole event.

Posted by Bill Roggio at October 1, 2008 4:27 PM ET:

The 30,000 number, which comes from the Pakistani press [Daily Times], is from early 2007. Dispute it all you like, but US intel believes the numbers are higher.

Nek Mohammed fought the Pak Army to a standstill in 2004, waiter or not. And he was certainly respected by both the Pak Army and the Taliban alike.

Mangal Bagh was a janitor, that didn't stop him from taking control of Lashkar-i-Islam in Khyber.

Posted by Icon at October 1, 2008 5:19 PM ET:

Does he pose a threat to launch an attack on the U.S. homeland? Thanks.

Posted by Kidartbai at October 2, 2008 12:09 AM ET:

Mangal Bagh is an ISI plant put in place to stop the TTP from taking over the area.