WANA — Nowadays, there is only one man who is taking the blame for everything happening in Pakistan, from suicide bombings to the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto.Baitullah Mehsud is the most wanted man by Pakistani and US intelligence agencies in the northern tribal belt, where pitched battles have been waging between pro-Al Qaeda tribesmen, known as local Taliban, and government forces.
Baitullah was a little-known man in Pakistan and rest of the world till a year and a half ago.
His name appeared for the first time in newspapers after the abduction of Chinese engineers two years back as an aide to Abdullah Mehsud, a former Guantanamo detainee who later turned out to be the commander of local Taliban.
Baitullah and Abdullah, hailing from the powerful Mehsud tribe of Pushtuns, parted their ways soon.
Abdullah, whom Baitullah suspected of being a double agent, was killed in a shootout last year in Zhob district of southwestern Balochistan province on the Afghan borders.
His death left Baitullah the sole contender of command in the troubled South Waziristan and its vicinage areas.
Mehsud is the biggest tribe in South Waziristan with 60 percent of the 700,000 population while rival Wazir makes up 35 percent.
The assassination of some 400 pro-government tribal lords, mostly belonging to Wazir tribe, last year is the major bone of contention between the two powerful tribes.
Baitullah did not shoot to fame until a local English daily quoted last October some low-profile tribal leaders as saying he had issued life threat to Bhutto if she returned from exile.
His name began to emerge in daily news reports after embattling President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency, largely to get rid of independent-minded judges opposed to his re-election.
Some portray Baitullah as an annoying stone in Musharraf’s shoe while others see him as a key figure who can disturb the political equilibrium in Pakistan.
He is now most wanted man by Pakistani and US intelligence agencies.
Baitullah never went to a school or any madrasah.
But he is considered a natural leader with keen political instincts, controlling a critical battleground in Washington’s so-called war on terror.
Mehsud, believes to be around 35, is suffering from diabetes and is on permanent treat.
“Despite the fact he is a diabetic, he is very active man,” a local tribal chief told IslamOnline.net on condition of anonymity.
“He changes his hideouts so frequently leaving the intelligence agencies clueless about him,” he noted.
“Personally, he is very generous and polite man. I have met him once some six months back. I found him a good person, an felt nothing extraordinary (about him).”
The tribal chief could not describe Baitullah’s features as he was covering his face during the meeting.
“He very rarely talks to the newsmen. And whenever he meets local journalists, his face remains covered,” a local journalist told IOL, also wishing not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“I and some of my friends have met him. Our first impression about him was truly good. He appeared to be very hospitable, and answered very politely our hard-hitting questions.”
During a recent one-on-one interview with the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel in the restive tribal belt Baitullah’s face was not shown.
Intelligence sources say Baitullah commands a highly trained militia of 20,000 to 25,000 fighters.
However, the local tribal chief put the number between 8,000 and 10,000 well-trained fighters.
“He is no doubt the most influential and powerful person of South and North Waziristan areas,” he said.
“His state stretches from South Waziristan to Bajur and from North Waziristan to Kurram agency (approximately 2700 Sq Kilometers).”
Around 2500 to 3000 foreign fighters, mostly of central Asian origin, are thought to be the forte of his force.
Baitullah was recently elected as Amir (commander) of Taliban Tehrik (movement) Pakistan.
“He is now the head of all the tribes harboring sympathies for Taliban. Tribesmen (local Taliban) from South Waziristan to Bajur agency have gathered under his flag, making him the most powerful and influential person in the tribal belt,” said the local journalist.
Baitullah’s fighters captured two important military forts in South Waziristan on January 16.
Over 400 armed militants ran over a military fort in Sararogha area, killing 23 soldiers and capturing 12.
The militants vacated the fort after hours and took away heavy weaponry with them, including armored personnel carriers.
The next day the militants captured another fort in the area and also vacated it some later.
On August 30, 2007, Baitullah’s militia captured 243 soldiers and held them hostage for two months until his demands were met.
One day after declaring emergency, Musharraf reached a settlement with Baitullah exchanging 25 militants in government custody for the captured troops.
Musharraf later admitted that these men were trained suicide bombers, and one of them was under indictment for participating in a suicide bombing.
As part of the deal, Baitullah agreed to expel foreign militants from his territories and stop attacking the army.
After the release of the soldiers, Musharraf refused to release the militants and Baitullah did not expel even a single foreign militant from the area under his control.
Lt General Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, the governor of the North Western Frontier Province and a former corps commander of Peshawar who played a pivotal role in brokering the deal, resigned last month virtually in a fit of anger over Musharraf’s non-fulfillment of his promises.
Hussein Khan, who owns a pharmacy in Wana, the capital of south Waziristan, says local tribesmen like Baitullah for some of his “good” acts.
“He has restored law and order in the area. Dacoits and thieves have left the area fearing harsh punishments,” he told IOL.
“But people also believe that there are many bad people in his militia.”
He cited the killing of 13 family members of the federal government’s political agent in Khyber agency, an adjacent tribal area, in an armed attack by Baitullah’s militia four months.
“He (Baitullah) publicly apologized for the incident,” Khan said.
“The Taliban involved in the attack have been languishing in (his) jail for the last four months. They would have been punished if the ongoing military operation had not begun,” he added.
Khan believes civilian casualties are increasing the anti-government and anti-security forces sentiments in the area.
“Mehsud is gaining the advantage of indiscriminate bombing and killing of common tribesmen. Sympathies are increasing for him with every passing day. I am not a literate person, or a security expert, but I know that no military operation will succeed against him,” he added.
“Those who are not supporters of Osama [bin laden] or Baitullah, even they have been forced by the indiscriminate military operation to harbor sympathies for them.”
But Baitullah’s detractors say that the security he brought to the area has come at a price of strict restrictions he imposed in the name of Islam.
“He has enforced his own rules in the area binding men not to shave their beards,” Gul Zameen, a local trucker, told IOL.
“Playing music and watching videos are against the law here.”
Lt General rtd Hameed Gul, a security analyst and a former head of the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), believes Baitullah is not at war with the army as an institution.
“He is acting against only those who have been there (in tribal area) at the behest of America. Otherwise, if not his brother, I am sure his many cousins would be in Pakistan army.”
He insists that the military interventions in the tribal area and last year’s fiasco Red Mosque onslaught have boosted Baitullah’s popularity.
“His only strength is a tribal system, which has given him so much power. In tribal system, everyone is your brother or cousin. So it’s very hard for a tribesman to sit idle if his brother, cousin or even fellow tribesman is fighting.”
Gul also maintains that there was no personal animosity towards slain Bhutto.
“Taliban came into being during her stint. Her government fully supported Taliban and they too never considered her an enemy,” said the former ISI chief.
“She was personally conveyed [a message] by Mehsud that he was not her enemy. She accepted that clarification that is why her party men reject the government claims about Mehsud’s involvement in her assassination.”
The veteran expert contends that the issue of Baitullah is being played for political reasons.
“This is just a hype being created by the US intelligence agencies about him to provide an excuse to their forces to enter Pakistan and attack,” he told IOL.
“There is no comparison between Mehsud, and Bin Laden or Ayman Zuwahiri. He is a simple reaction or retaliation to the bombings and killings of his fellow tribesmen by Pakistani and US forces,” insists the expert.
“America needs a target to enter Pakistan. Earlier, it had been crying that Bin Laden and Zuwahiri were hiding in Pakistan, but when it was not proved then it started creating an equally high-profile target to justify the right of preemption.”
Gul believes US President George Bush has nothing to tell the US people except that Al-Qaeda is still kicking in the line.
“Same is the case with Musharraf who has nothing to save his illegal stint except some gifts to US in the form of so-called big fish like Baitullah.”
He argues that Baitullah is not the first “victim” of a such hype campaign.
“He is not the first one who is being presented as a big fish. Before him, there were Naik Muhammed, Abul Firaj Al-Libbi, Amjad Farooqi and Abdullah Mehsud,” said Gul, citing local Al-Qaeda chiefs killed by security forces in recent years.
“It has become a trend here to make villains and then kill them.”