Clashes between Taliban militants and Pakistan’s military intensified on Monday in the lawless Waziristan region amid mounting efforts by the government to arrest or kill Baitullah Mehsud, the most prominent Taliban militant.
Officials in the North-West Frontier Province, which includes the semi-autonomous Waziristan district, reported heavy exchange of fire in areas inhabited by Mr Mehsud’s followers after helicopter gunships and air force jets attacked sites thought to be used as ammunition stores.
In spite of a two-week military campaign against Mr Mehsud, his fate remains unclear, although some think he might have retreated across the border with Afghanistan.
Catching or killing Mr Mehsud would mark an important victory for Pakistan, whose government has traced to him almost all of the big terrorist attacks in the past two years including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister.
He has built up a network of Taliban warriors on the ground in Waziristan while overseeing the training of hundreds of activists willing to carry out suicide attacks in the name of Islam – a tactic relatively unknown in Pakistan until three or four years ago.
Mr Mehsud’s success in using suicide attacks, which he is believed to have imported as a tactic from Iraq along with al-Qaeda trainers, has built up his profile from that of a local chieftain to a foe who is capable of disrupting Pakistan’s pro-US war on terror.
“He is just not a symbolic figure whose elimination will mark a big success for Pakistan. He is also someone that any force will not like to have as an opponent,” says a Pakistani security official.
“If you eliminate Baitullah Mehsud, you can surely claim a major victory” adds Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and respected Pakistani commentator.
Mr Mehsud is believed to be in his mid-30s, though he has never been photographed. He has promoted himself as a guardian of the jihad, or holy war, against Pakistani troops, whom he claims are fighting on behalf of the US.
He has also won over the hearts and minds of a part of the local population by distributing food and other supplies to the poor, helping him to build up a network of informers.
At the same time, he has promoted the use of ferocious tactics such as beheadings of suspected government informers. This is intended to “scare his opponents in to giving up the fight against him”, adds the Pakistani security official.
In the past week, however, cracks have appeared in Mr Mehsud’s network after Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, a key rival commander, publicly denounced him for attacking Pakistan’s security forces.
Western diplomats say that the combination of a growing number of local challenges to Mr Mehsud and the military campaign will probably break his hold on Waziristan.
“As things look today, we may be seeing the dismantling of the Baitullah Mehsud network,” says one diplomat. Others speculate that he will either be killed in a Pakistani military attack or flee across the border to Afghanistan.
Analysts warn, however, that the defeat of Mr Mehsud – if it happens – will have to be followed up with concerted action to block the re-emergence of another figure who can challenge the authority of the Pakistani state.
“If Baitullah Mehsud is the basic monster who is the main instigator in this militancy, then there has to be some relief for a while [if he is eliminated],” says Tanseem Noorani, the former secretary of Pakistan’s federal ministry of interior.
“But we must acknowledge that tolerance by the government of religious groups spreading themselves has led to their empowerment”.
Future efforts to curb the spread of the Taliban, Mr Noorani says, must include measures such as making clerics accountable for large-scale funding of their causes. “Once you can establish that the state means business, then you begin to plug the holes,” he says.
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