PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Sometime in mid-December, as the winter winds howled across the snow-dusted hills of Pakistan’s inhospitable border regions, 40 men representing Taliban groups all across Pakistan’s northwest frontier came together to unify under a single banner and to choose a leader.
The banner was Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, with a fighting force estimated at up to 40,000. And the leader was Baitullah Mehsud, the man Pakistan accuses of murdering former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The move is an attempt to present a united front against the Pakistani army, which has been fighting insurgents along the border with Afghanistan. It is also the latest sign of the rise of Mehsud, considered the deadliest of the Taliban mullahs, or clerics, in northwest Pakistan.
Mehsud is based in the rugged, heavily treed mountains of South Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s so-called tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, where Western intelligence says al-Qaida is regrouping. His organization has claimed responsibility, often backed up by videos, for killing and kidnapping hundreds of soldiers, beheading women and burning schools that teach girls anything other than religion. He also claims he has a steady supply of suicide bombers and strong ties to al-Qaida.
“Al-Qaida has succeeded in building a base in the last two or three years mostly with help from Mehsud,” said Ahmed Zaidan, a reporter for Al-Jazeera Television in Qatar who interviewed Mehsud three weeks ago. “They are moving freely in the tribal areas where it is difficult for the Pakistan army to move.”
During the interview, Mehsud said in halting Arabic that he had never met Osama bin Laden but knew Abu Musab al-Zarqawi well. Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. air raid two years ago.
Al-Qaida gives Mehsud money and logistical advice, according to one of his Taliban allies, Maulvi Muslim, who spoke in a voice that barely rose above a whisper and fell silent when a stranger walked by.
The Al-Qaida funds don’t always come in cash. Rather, Afghan and Pakistani businessmen — usually in the United Arab Emirates — are given money to buy high-priced goods like cars. The goods are shipped to Pakistan and sold, often tripling al-Qaida’s investment. The businessmen, with sympathies to al-Qaida, take a small cut while al-Qaida spreads the wealth among its allies.
The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan share ideological goals but have separate structures, Muslim said. The spiritual head of both is the one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was the leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban before being ousted by the U.S.-led coalition in November 2001 and to whom Mehsud swore allegiance in 2001, according to Muslim.
Mehsud, thought to be in his 40s, is secretive and, like Mullah Omar, hates to be photographed. He is described as devoted to the Taliban and not well educated.
“They say he is free from all vices, walks around covering almost half his face all the time,” said Mehmood Shah, a retired Pakistani brigadier who was the government’s former point man for the tribal regions. “He is very modest in his manners and polite.”
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has also accused Mehsud’s men of carrying out most of 19 suicide bombings in Pakistan over just three months. Newspapers quoted him as threatening Bhutto’s life, but he denied it, and also denied Pakistani accusations that he was behind her Dec. 27 assassination.
Mehsud is also quoted as saying jihad is the only way to peace, a belief reflected in his history.
Muslim says Mehsud’s first battlefield experience was in Afghanistan in the late 1980s against Soviet invaders. His mentor at the time was Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerful commander in eastern Afghanistan backed by the United States against the Soviets. Now Haqqani is wanted as a terrorist by the U.S. and NATO.
According to both Muslim and another Taliban source, when the U.S. invaded in 2001, Mehsud fought with the Taliban in Shah-e-Kot in eastern Afghanistan. Scores of Uzbek, Tajik and Arab fighters are believed to have escaped from Shah-e-Kot to South Waziristan, where Mehsud rules. The Mehsud tribe is not the largest in South Waziristan, but it has a reputation for being the fiercest.
Mehsud’s ascent reflects the failure of Pakistan’s army with its U.S. funding to win control of its tribal areas.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Mehsud was not prominent among the Pakistani militants who supported Afghanistan’s Taliban, according to Shah, the former army officer.
“Mehsud was a small fry, but I could see in time he could be of some problem,” Shah said. “I was trying to get big tribal people onto the government side and religious people onto the government side to isolate these hard-core types like him.”
It was a long process. Pakistan got tribal leaders to put up money or weapons as guarantees that they would keep peace —— a traditional tribal strategy that makes sure one tribe doesn’t renege on its promise to another. If they misbehaved, Pakistan tried to strangle their businesses and hammer them with force.
Shah recalled destroying 80 shops belonging to a renegade tribal leader.
At the time, Shah said, Mehsud was not even the definitive leader of South Waziristan. At one point, he became embroiled in a power struggle with another in his tribe, Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who had spent time in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Abdullah Mehsud opposed any agreement with the Pakistani government.
Shah said he made a point of operating within the tribal structures and dealing with the tribal leaders and not the Pakistani Taliban commanders emerging at the time.
But by the end of 2004, the Pakistani army had started negotiations with the militants, Shah said. The pressure to negotiate came from the provincial government of the frontier, a coalition of right-wing religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban and opposed to the Western troop presence in Afghanistan.
Musharraf, whose rule as both Pakistani president and army chief of staff was being challenged in 2004, agreed to talks in exchange for the support of the provincial government. As a result, the Pakistani government on Feb. 7, 2005 signed a peace agreement with Mehsud.
According to Shah, Mehsud’s troop strength then went from less than 100 to about 20,000, or roughly half the total thought to be under Taliban command in the northwest region that straddles the Pakistan-Afghan border. The agreement gave Mehsud time to consolidate his forces and kill pro-government tribal leaders.
“The government policy of appeasement gave Mehsud a free hand to recruit and motivate,” said Shah.
Within a year of the agreement, Shah said, 123 pro-government tribal leaders were gunned down on Mehsud’s orders, accused of spying.
Mehsud also negotiated a prisoner exchange with Musharraf in November. Mehsud handed over a few hundred soldiers who had surrendered to the Taliban without firing a shot. In exchange, Musharraf gave up 19 men who were in custody on terrorism charges, including a son of Mehsud’s mentor, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who had been in Pakistani custody.