Endgame closing in on Baitullah ( EDITORIAL IN THE DAILY TIMES OF JUNE 25,2009)
Baitullah Mehsud has had his opponent Qari Zainuddin murdered in Dera Ismail Khan for disclosing facts about him that he had denied. If this is a measure of how Baitullah will react to his diminishing hold over his objectors, then he is sure to kill another local rival Turkistan Bitani who had made public his criminal activities last week. Does this mean that Baitullah is gaining the upper hand in the region where the Pakistan Army is now challenging him with an operation? The fact to keep in mind is that Zainuddin and Bitani were encouraged to speak out because of the hope revived in them by the military operation. That Baitullah has had to kill Zainuddin instead of ignoring him as in the past points to his growing insecurity.Pakistan has been opposed to the American drone attacks on its territory, but not without some evidence that the local population living under the heel of Baitullah Mehsud did not mind them. There was a time when the drones did not target Baitullah simply because he was not attacking American troops across the Durand Line. This was a tactic of keeping down the number of people operating in Afghanistan through the “incentive” of “non-strikes”. Now that pattern is changing and the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is feeling the heat of missiles coming from the drones. On Tuesday, these missiles killed at least 51 Taliban in South Waziristan, where the army is poised for an attack on Baitullah’s stronghold.South Waziristan under attack is going to expose a whole lot of people hiding there and operating in neighbouring countries. The estimates about the strength of the people Baitullah has under arms keep changing; so do the estimates about the funds he has at his disposal. He is now said to have approximately 20,000 militants. There was a time when people thought he could mobilise 50,000. Only the “foreigners” he was protecting were supposed to be 5,000. To the number of Uzbeks, Arabs, Chechens and Uighurs have been added a number of Tajiks who are fighting against the Uzbek-dominated regime of Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has suffered a number of attacks guided from South Waziristan by Qari Tahir Yuldashev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Baitullah has also allegedly used IMU men to kill the innocent people of Swat.Before the decision to mount a military operation against him, Baitullah enjoyed the kind of grudging recognition that tyrants enjoy when they are unchallenged. The mere fact that the army has decided to go for him has changed that point of view. The greatest weakness suffered by him is the loss of support from the people of Pakistan who now consider him a threat to the state and to Islam itself. Not only have his opponents come out of their hiding to speak out against him, his suicide-bombers are being caught “before the fact” in all the vulnerable cities of Pakistan because of the slackening of the will to die for someone who is no longer a model for them.Perhaps it was a wrong strategy to mop up his lieutenants on the margins and leave him alone at the centre to gradually suffer a waning of his power. Fazlullah in Swat and other commanders in Bajaur and Orakzai were engaged simply because they were more manageable as targets in territories considered easy terrain. That strategy has partly paid off because the commanders have tended to run away to South Waziristan after being defeated in their regions. But the decision to go for South Waziristan is without a doubt more effective in lowering the prestige and outreach of TTP in the whole of Pakistan. TTP minions who cut a man’s both hands in Hangu on Tuesday for theft will be sorted out after Baitullah has got his comeuppance from the army.