Zainuddin’s assassination exposes Taliban rifts ( FROM DAILY TIMES OF JUNE 25,2009)
* South Waziristan residents adopting a wait-and-see approach
* Neither Taliban commander ready to send fighters to Mehsud’s aid for fear of drone strikes
PESHAWAR: The assassination of Qari Zainuddin, the leader of the renegade Taliban faction, by one of his own men underscores a growing rift in the ranks of the Taliban as they brace for an impending army assault.
Zainuddin’s killing on Tuesday sets back government hopes of exploiting these internal divisions in South Waziristan, where the army has been pounding strongholds of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in apparent preparation for a major offensive.
Although Zainuddin was never seen as a serious challenger to Mehsud, the government had clearly hoped his outspoken criticism of the Taliban leader would foster others to defect and help the army with tips on where to find him.
Mahmood Shah, a former top security official, said the slaying sends a message to the government that only a major operation would have a chance of defeating Mehsud.
“Baitullah Mehsud has overcome all tribal dynamics. He has resources, funding and a fighting force to strike anywhere in Pakistan,” Shah said, calling him a front man for Al Qaeda and his home base of South Waziristan the “epicentre in the war on terror”.
The strength of the mutineers - led by Zainuddin, Turkestan Baitni and Commander Amir Thesil - is dwarfed by Mehsud’s army, said a tribal leader from South Waziristan who asked not to be identified because he feared either Mehsud or Mehsud’s enemies would kill him. He estimated Mehsud’s strength at upwards of 12,000 fighters, including Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs, Uzbeks, Burmese, Chinese and even some Americans and Australians.
“They have control of the whole Mehsud area,” the tribal leader said, referring to a 4,000-kilometre swath of land in the remote, mountainous tribal zone. “He will be difficult to eliminate. The Pakistani forces will face a tough fight.”
“Any further defections from Baitullah’s group might not take place,” Shah said, adding that Zainuddin’s value to the government was that of a potential informant who “could tell where the hideouts would have been.”
Army spokesman Gen Athar Abbas said that the military has not helped any of the anti-Mehsud Taliban forces, which he said have not demonstrated an ability to protect themselves.
“The government may be engaging with them and may be doing whatever at a political level,” said Abbas, but the military isn’t ready to partner with any insurgents who “might end up being a future problem for us”.
Zainuddin, who broke with Mehsud in 2007, was estimated to have about 3,000 armed followers in the towns of Dera Ismail Khan and nearby Tank.
Although Zainuddin too had a ruthless past, he denounced Mehsud this month for recent attacks on mosques that killed clerics and civilians, bombings apparently in retaliation for the army offensive in the Swat valley.
Residents of South Waziristan are adopting a wait-and-see approach to the Pakistani military operation, reluctant to show outright support for an army they worry will not complete the job.
“You have to know that among the tribes we will follow whoever is the strongest,” said the tribal leader. A shura, or council of elders, for the Mehsud tribe was held on June 16, but the tribal leaders, who had previously endorsed Mehsud, broke up without any decision except to meet again.
In an agreement four months ago, Baitullah had closed ranks with powerful Taliban leaders - Maulvi Naseer in South Waziristan and Gul Bahadar in North Waziristan. Both men have battle-hardened troops, in contrast to the weaker mutineers, and could prove a more difficult opponent for the Pakistan Army.
While the agreement is holding, there are reports that neither Naseer nor Bahadar is ready to send his fighters to Mehsud’s aid for fear that they might be hit by US drones patrolling the tribal regions. ap daily times 25-6-09