Terror in the Tribal Regions: Pakistan's New Breed of Ruthless Leaders

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A new generation of Taliban fighters has taken over in Pakistan's tribal regions near the Afghan border. Their ruthless leader is believed to have been involved in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Army troops move towards Pakistan's tribal region of Waziristan.
AP

Army troops move towards Pakistan's tribal region of Waziristan.

When an underling disobeys him, Baitullah Mehsud, the new leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, fines the offender 1,000 rupees, or about €11, sends him home with needle and thread, and orders him to have someone sew his own shroud within 24 hours. The offender is usually dead by the time the 24 hours are up, executed by the extremist leader's militias.

Many such grisly stories about the Taliban's new strongman, all of 34 years old, have been making the rounds in the tribal region of South Waziristan. And yet hardly anyone has ever seen the Islamist commander. There are no known photos of the Taliban leader from the village of Landidog, who has sealed himself off against unwanted visitors in a region that is largely cut off from civilization. The area is controlled by the Broomikhels, a subgroup of the Mehsud clan, feared and referred to as "wolves" during the British colonial era for their warlike habits.

And yet the mysterious Baitullah Mehsud is as famous as a cricket star in Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf has declared him the country's public enemy number one.

As a close ally of al-Qaida, Mehsud has spent the last few years developing the remote valleys of South Waziristan into a safe haven for the terrorists. His fighters are believed to be responsible for a large share of recent suicide bombings in Afghanistan. According to Musharraf, Mehsud's supporters were behind the kidnappings of hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and almost all attacks on the Pakistani security forces in the last three months.

Did They Kill Bhutto?

CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden claims that Mehsud was also involved in the deadly attack on Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. "We have no reason to doubt this," says Hayden. Mehsud has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the murder.

One piece of evidence suggesting his involvement is a phone conversation wiretapped by Pakistani intelligence, which allegedly took place between the Taliban leader and his confidant, Maulvi Sahib, shortly after the killing:

Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations, I just got back during the night.
Baitullah Mehsud: And congratulations to you. Were they our men?
Maulvi Sahib: Yes, they were our men.
Baitullah Mehsud: Who were they?
Maulvi Sahib: It was Saeed, there was Bilal from Badar, and Ikramullah.
Baitullah Mehsud: The three of them did it?
Maulvi Sahib: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.
Baitullah Mehsud: Then, congratulations!

To this day, the evidence of involvement in the murder remains thin. Nevertheless, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization and the new Taliban have, in fact, been cooperating closely for some time. They train and develop plans together. The individual plots and attacks are conducted by whoever is in command in the region in question and has the most powerful organization.

A New Breed of Leader

Toward the end of last year, a council of high-ranking Taliban leaders appointed Baitullah Mehsud the leader of the newly formed "Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan" (Taliban Movement of Pakistan). At first glance, there are many similarities between Mehsud, a young leader of Koran students, and the founder of the Taliban movement, Mullah Omar, a former village cleric from southern Afghanistan. But the freshly anointed Taliban chief embodies a new, considerably more aggressive generation of religious fanatics. He knows nothing but war, is 14 years younger than Mullah Omar and has had no religious training.

Supporters of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto light lamps during a photo tribute to Bhutto in Rawalpindi.
AFP

Supporters of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto light lamps during a photo tribute to Bhutto in Rawalpindi.

The old mujaheddin who fought in the war against the Soviets and the Taliban who were driven from Afghanistan in 2001, however, still respected the tribal hierarchies and the Pashtuns' rudimentary code of honor. Although it includes blood feuds, it also stringently requires that the innocent -- especially women and children -- be protected. Nowadays, on the other hand, anything done in the name of jihad seems permissible. The cooperative arrangement between al-Qaida and the Taliban has broken ranks with the ultraconservative but ordered world of the tribes living in the regions along the Afghan border. This has led to new tensions, so much so that most traditional tribal leaders are now refusing to cooperate with bin Laden's terrorist network. But members of the young neo-Taliban have used every means available to protect their foreign "guests." In the ensuing power struggle, the new Taliban commanders have already killed more than 250 tribal leaders.

The rise of these ruthless sons of the Taliban began more than six years ago. When the Taliban regime was ousted in Afghanistan, the ensuing American bombing campaign drove thousands of fighters into the Pakistani tribal regions and to Baluchistan. The refugees also included al-Qaida fighters, including young Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and Uyghurs.

The first war minister of the second Taliban generation, Mullah Dadullah Akhund, was long considered the most savage of the new leaders. The one-legged military leader launched his regime of terror with suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. Last May, Mullah Dadullah, 38 at the time, was shot and killed by Western troops in southern Afghanistan.

A Rising Star

Next to Baitullah Mehsud, however, the most influential rising young star in the terrorist network in the Hindu Kush region is Siraj Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a renowned Afghan mujahedeen leader. The father had occasionally fought on the side of the Taliban, primarily to safeguard the region he controlled in southeastern Afghanistan. When he died in the summer of 2007, his son Siraj assumed control.

Armed Pakistani militants loyal to pro-Taliban cleric Mullah Fazlullah.
AFP

Armed Pakistani militants loyal to pro-Taliban cleric Mullah Fazlullah.

Major Chris Belcher, the spokesman of the US armed forces in Afghanistan, accuses the new Taliban of unparalleled viciousness: "The younger generation is simply pushing aside the old leaders and dictating a new brutality, which includes arbitrary killing as much as it does the beheading of women." The Americans have set a bounty of $200,000 (€135,000) for the capture of Siraj Haqqani.

In the meantime, the upstart leader has even challenged the authority of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has criticized the high civilian death toll during recent suicide bombings.

At first, President Musharraf still attempted to negotiate with the unscrupulous young fighters. Under a February 2005 peace treaty, Musharraf agreed to withdraw his troops from the tribal region in South Waziristan, provided the insurgents relinquished their support for al-Qaida fighters. Baitullah Mehsud, the presumed mastermind of the Bhutto murder, signed the treaty on behalf of the Taliban.

But the outcome was disastrous. It provided the extremists with the best possible safe haven in which they could rearm undisturbed.

Today, confrontation has returned to the region. Over the past two weeks, the Pakistani army has been waging an offensive against Mehsud in South Waziristan. Mehsud's troops have systematically attempted to bring guard posts and even military forts under control. Dozens are killed on both sides on an almost daily basis. Hoping to eliminate the extremists, Musharraf has ordered his forces to bomb Taliban positions -- but Mehsud has consistently managed to escape.

The Americans are now openly considering running their own covert operations in the tribal region, a plan Musharraf, a former soldier in his country's special forces, finds amusing. "The United States seems to believe that it can do something that our army cannot," he says. "This assessment is completely wrong."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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