Baitullah Mehsud: South Waziristan’s Unofficial Amir
Militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas gave birth to a new generation of leadership. Most of the traditional tribal elders who constitute the jirga system have been killed at the hands of the local Taliban; those who survived this assassination strategy fled to safer locations in other areas in the North-West Frontier Province. In the last two years, this new generation of leaders has established control over certain local Taliban groups. Yet, there are some leaders that have established control all throughout the tribal agencies. Baitullah Mehsud is one of the most prominent leaders among the local Taliban, virtually governing all of South Waziristan agency (Daily Times, March 31).
Mehsud came into prominence when tribal leader Nek Mohammad was killed by security forces during a missile attack. Thirty-two years-old, Baitullah Mehsud was born in Landidog, a small tribal village situated on the fringes of South Waziristan. He has four brothers—Mohammad Yaqoob, Mohammad Ishaq, Yayha Khan and Zahir Shah—and is the son of the late Mohamad Haroon. Unlike local Taliban leaders in North Waziristan—who are recognized religious scholars who run their own seminaries—Mehsud and other local Taliban leaders in South Waziristan are not as well educated. Baitullah Mehsud did not finish regular schooling or religious schooling. He belongs to Broomikhel, an offshoot of sub-tribe Shabikhel, which is a part of the larger Mehsud tribe. Baitullah is married and is very tough physically and mentally. Although he is not well educated, he is famous for his political acumen and military skills. His colleagues describe him as a natural leader who has great ability to infuse vitality among his followers.
Twelve years ago, as a young madrassa student, he was greatly inspired by Taliban ideology and frequently went to Afghanistan as a volunteer to join in the Taliban’s enforcement of Sharia and to offer his services. As a traditional tribal man, he is an expert at using small arms. When speaking to this author in June, a person from Mehsud’s native village said that he has not, however, been credited victory in any significant gun battle or skirmish, unlike Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.
There are a number of analogies between Mullah Omar, chief of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Baitullah Mehsud. Both leaders shun the media and as a result they are not pictured in photographs. This makes it difficult for security forces and the outside world to recognize them. Omar and Mehsud vow jihad, and they are constantly on the move from one hideout to the next in order to avoid arrest. Baitullah has pledged himself to Mullah Omar, even though he signed a deal with the Pakistani army in February 2005. Baitullah was appointed as Mullah Omar’s governor of the Mehsud tribe in a special ceremony attended by five leading Taliban commanders (Rediff.com, March 10). One of them was Mullah Dadullah (Terrorism Focus, March 21). It is said that Pakistani security forces do not take military action against Baitullah because he has assured them that he will not attack the security forces (Rediff.com, March 10). The local Taliban are considered to be his own private army—although the army’s actual numbers are not known, it is believed that his armed followers number in the thousands. These men are instrumental in establishing his writ in South Waziristan. Tribal society is already conservative and religious, so Baitullah does not need to do much in order to enforce Sharia.
On February 7, 2005, he signed a deal with the federal government that is termed by government quarters as his surrender, but his associates deny these claims and say that it was a peace agreement. Baitullah Mehsud and scores of his supporters laid down arms in a tribal jirga meeting. He was wanted by the government for allegedly sheltering and assisting al-Qaeda fugitives in areas dominated by the Mehsud tribe (The Nation, February 8, 2005).
As part of the peace agreement, Baitullah pledged that he and his associates would not provide assistance to al-Qaeda and other militants and would not launch operations against government forces. Baitullah explained that the peace agreement was in the interests of the tribal regions in addition to the government since many enemies—including Indian- and Russian-backed former Northern Alliance fighters—were benefiting from the lack of unity between the government and the tribesmen (The Nation, February 8, 2005).
As a result of the peace agreement, South Waziristan is relatively calm, especially when compared to North Waziristan. Baitullah Mehsud himself is not in the limelight because he consistently avoids connections with the media and displays his powerful presence through other means. His men roam South Waziristan in pickup trucks. They monitor many matters, including day-to-day problems among the people, grievances with the political administration and maintaining law and order.