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Friday, 7 August 2009

Is Pakistan's Taliban Chief Dead?

Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud speaks to reporters in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region on May 24, 2008

American and Pakistani officials say it looked more and more likely that the man was Baitullah Mehsud, who had a $5-million bounty on his head. Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told reporters in Islamabad on Friday Aug. 7 that, "According to my intelligence information, the news is correct. We are trying to get on the ground verification to be 100% sure. But according to my information, he has been taken out." Local Pakistani media, citing "tribal sources" in South Waziristan,�are reporting that Mehsud's funeral prayers had been held and that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's shura, or council, was meeting today to choose Mehsud's successor. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

It may be days, or weeks, before confirmation is obtained. Hellfire strikes often obliterate targets, leaving little for investigators to work with. Pakistani officials are reportedly trying to collect material evidence, but U.S. intelligence officials will also be paying close attention to chatter on the Taliban's communication channels. "Taking Mehsud off the battlefield would be a major victory," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "He has American blood on his hands with attacks on our forces in Afghanistan. This would also affirm the effectiveness of our government's counterterrorism policies." (Read "Pakistan Takes On Taliban Leader Mehsud.")

If confirmed, Mehsud's death would bring to a dramatic end a short but terrifying career. Over the past two years, Mehsud, who is believed to be about 35, emerged from near-obscurity to claim a place in a hall of infamy along with the Saudi Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda (who are still at large) and the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed while leading the radical insurgency in Iraq. Cagey, dogged and charismatic, Mehsud had a knack for uniting disparate factions around a common cause; he transformed the badlands of South Waziristan into the most important redoubt for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. He denied involvement in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but he was not unhappy about it: the Pakistani government produced an alleged message from him congratulating the perpetrators: "Fantastic job. Very brave boys, the ones who killed her."

With a reported 20,000 militants at his command, Mehsud was believed to have been the architect of the 2008 bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, the mastermind behind a terrorist cell uncovered in Barcelona that same year and the dispatcher of numerous suicide bombers in South Asia. Earlier this year, he threatened a massive terrorist attack on Washington that would "amaze everyone in the world." (Read "Islamabad After the Marriott Bombing: The Baghdad Effect.")

An uneducated Pashtun tribesman from a modest clan, Mehsud reportedly came from a family that made their living driving trucks. Though given to boasting about his grand plans for inflicting mass murder, Mehsud was also cautious. He shunned photographers — there are no definitive portraits — traveled in convoys protected by armed guards and hopped between safe houses. Despite his bellicose rhetoric, Mehsud was also described as baby-faced and jocular in person.

As a teen, Mehsud served as a Taliban fighter against the Soviets in the battle for Afghanistan, but first rose to prominence as a supporter of Abdullah Mehsud (no relation), a one-legged militant imprisoned at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. Baitullah Mehsud quickly leapfrogged his boss, and his ascension up the jihadi ladder was made apparent in 2005, when — swathed in a black cloth to shield his face — he negotiated the public signing of a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistani government. (Read "Why Pakistan Balks at the U.S. Afghanistan Offensive.")

Indeed, under the cover afforded by the agreement, Mehsud was once touted by a Pakistani Army official as a "good Taliban." He used that goodwill to quickly tighten his grip on Waziristan, converting the rugged region into a haven where militant groups could freely operate camps and training facilities. The assassination of Bhutto and subsequent attacks attributed to Mehsud turned him into a prime target of the Pakistani government. In June 2009, the governor of the North-West Frontier Province denounced Mehsud as "the root cause of all evils" as the army launched a "full-fledged" military operation to eliminate the Taliban leader. CIA-operated drones also went to work, attacking sites associated with Mehsud. On Wednesday, one of their missiles may have found its mark.

Mehsud death could signal turning tide against Pakistan militants


The US appears to have decapitated Pakistan's most notorious Taliban outfit, but the war is by no means won

For a time, Baitullah Mehsud appeared to have cloaked himself in the historical garb of the Faqir of Ipi, a militant cleric whom British colonial troops spent much of the 1930s and 40s chasing through the mountain passes of Waziristan.

"They sought him here, they sought him there, those columns sought him everywhere," went an old British couplet that equally applied to Mehsud as he shrugged off efforts by Pakistani and, more recently, US forces to kill him.

In June a CIA-operated drone fired a barrage of missiles at a funeral for militants killed in an attack that day. Mehsud had slipped away hours earlier. Now, though, the odds seem to have fatally narrowed.

If the blizzard of reports out of Washington, Islamabad and the tribal areas are confirmed, the US has decapitated Pakistan's most notorious Taliban outfit. Over the two years since he founded the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mehsud rose from a little-known border warrior to public enemy number one, notorious for mastering the dark art of suicide bombing.

Coming on the heels of the army's success in the Swat valley this summer, his apparent death could signal that Pakistan is finally turning the tide in its struggle against Islamist militancy. But the war is by no means won.

Over the past two years the TTP has grown into a powerful confederation of militant groups across the federally administered tribal areas whose leaders swear fealty to Mehsud. The man tipped to replace him, Hakeemullah Mehsud, currently commands operations in the Orakzai tribal agency, south-west of Peshawar. This year he claimed responsibility for an assault on a police training centre in Lahore and a military checkpost in Islamabad.

But the death of Mehsud will test the TTP's unity and its ability to inflict suicide attacks beyond its tribal stronghold. Reports of fresh fighting this morning between pro- and anti-Baitullah factions of the Mehsud tribe in Tank, on the edge of South Waziristan, indicate that the Pakistani military intends to press its advantage and splinter the organisation.

Earlier attempts to do so failed. In June one such military proxy, Zainuddin Mehsud, was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards, probably at the behest of Baitullah.

The fact that it took a US missile to kill Mehsud is a mark of the inability of Pakistan's armed forces to touch him, but also of recently improved co-operation between Pakistani and American intelligence, a relationship long characterised by mutual distrust.

While American spies have been allowed to co-ordinate strikes in the tribal belt for at least five years – the first strike, against commander Nek Muhammad, occurred in 2004 – Pakistan privately complained that the US focused its firepower on Taliban commanders attacking Afghanistan but refused to strike Mehsud, whose campaign of chaos was dangerously destabilising Pakistan.

The relationship started to visibly change last spring when Predator and Reaper drones started to target Mehsud's mountain stronghold in South Waziristan. In a recent briefing to the Guardian, officials within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency expressed satisfaction that the Obama administration was acting on their concerns.

Yet tensions remain. Even if the TTP were to crumble, a significant Taliban threat would remain to provide support to hundreds of al-Qaida militants, including Osama bin Laden, in the tribal belt. Militant commanders Maulvi Nazir, in South Waziristan, and Qari Gul Bahadur, in North Waziristan, control substantial militant networks that dispatch thousands of fighters across the porous border into Afghanistan to do battle with western soldiers.

Bahadur, in particular, is thought to be sheltering many of the Arab fighters – possibly including Bin Laden – who are most keenly sought by western countries. He is also closely linked to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a powerful Afghan commander blamed by the US for hundreds of attacks in Afghanistan.

But the Pakistani army has been reluctant to tackle either Nazir or Bahadur. This is partly due to the difficulty of taking on their highly motivated, battle-hardened warriors in such difficult terrain. Many western analysts also believe that Pakistan's security establishment sees the two men as "good Taliban" – proxies who play a part in Pakistan's broader regional strategy of parrying Indian influence in Afghanistan.

And so, while the latest incarnation of the elusive Faqir of Ipi may be dead, another may yet emerge.

Baitullah Mehsud believed dead ,,,, VIDEO

Zardari and the NRO

The president has a long list of enemies who would like to see him taken down a notch or two: Cyril Almeida  —Reuters/File photo

ALL him Mr NRO. Asif Zardari isn’t the only beneficiary of that much-reviled National Reconciliation Ordinance, but he is the most high-profile.

Widower of the woman who negotiated the NRO, regent of the PPP because his son is too young, master of the country because his ruling party is too pusillanimous to challenge him – the president has a long list of enemies who would like to see him taken down a notch or two.

So Zardari’s foes rejoiced when CJ Iftikhar declared Musharraf’s ‘07 emergency unconstitutional because they hope it will re-open the issue of the NRO. What they won’t tell you is that it’s a legal dead end. Politically though it could be Zardari’s kryptonite – but more on that later.

The NRO, promulgated by Musharraf a couple of weeks before Benazir returned to Pakistan in October 2007, is a simple enough ordinance. The text claims it was meant to ‘promote national reconciliation, foster mutual trust and confidence amongst holders of public office and remove the vestiges of political vendetta and victimisation’.

Lofty goals those, but the rule of thumb here is that the loftier the language the baser the motives. Mainly, two laws were affected by the NRO.

One, the Criminal Code of Procedure was amended to withdraw all cases filed by the government between Jan 1, 1986 and Oct 12, 1999 – this on the condition that a review board determine that ‘political reasons’ and ‘victimisation’ were involved.

Two, the National Accountability Ordinance was amended to overturn convictions in cases dealing with events before Musharraf’s coup in 1999 in which the accused were tried in absentia and to bring to a halt ongoing investigations into pre-October 1999 shenanigans of public officials.

The result? The legal woes of many, many politicians were simply wiped away. Including the man destined in the most befuddling of ways to become the next president – Asif Zardari.

But what would it mean for Zardari today, here in August 2009, if the NRO is scrapped? Legally, not much. Article 248 of the constitution gives Zardari presidential immunity – ‘No criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the President or a Governor in any court during his term of office.’

A settled issue then? Well, this is Pakistan, so let’s assume it’s not.

How do Zardari’s rivals cut him down to size? Since he controls the federal government, there are unlikely to be any memos being prepared by state prosecutors for criminal proceedings against the boss – at least if the prosecutors know what’s good for their careers.

But couldn’t CJ Iftikhar and his band of non-PCO judges find a way to bring Zardari to justice? The problem is they sit too high up in the judicial pyramid – they preside over, in the main, courts of appeal, not trial courts. And with none of the state prosecutors likely to step forward to do something about their president … unless CJ Iftikhar strikes fear into the hearts of prosecutors with his gavel and his ability to chuck people into jail for contempt. But now we’re in the land of the bizarre.

So then why are people so worked up about the NRO?

Those who want to see Zardari back behind bars will in any case get another chance. The NRO is time bound – it applies to stuff that happened before Oct 12, 1999. If the next non-PPP government, military or civilian, wants to go after Zardari in that time-honoured fashion of persecuting your predecessors, they won’t be bothered by stuff that happened in the last century. They’ll have enough from September 2008 onwards – when Zardari became president – to dig through.

So why create this fuss over the NRO?

Because the NRO is a political stick to beat Zardari with. Think about it. For the last decade and a half BB and AZ have been synonymous with corruption. Not a single piece of news or commentary about the duo could be written or broadcast without a mention of corruption. They were probably sick to death of it, and were maybe even concerned that the allegations would follow them to their graves and that the whispers would haunt their children too.

So what they needed was a clean start; a way to re-enter Pakistani politics not encrusted with the mud of corruption. Enter the NRO. And the reason it drives their detractors mad is that it actually worked – say what you will, but ‘NRO’ doesn’t quite have the same ring as ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’.

The NRO was BB’s ‘get out of jail’ card, a way to campaign on the election trail without the distraction of having to fight corruption allegations in court. And it also ensured that any last-minute hiccups in the delicate negotiations with Musharraf would not see her and her party members shut out of the elections altogether – look no further than the recent travails of the Sharif brothers for evidence of what an unfriendly election commission and judiciary can do.

BB tried to cover all her bases through the NRO – even the scenario where she and her party members were elected, but then continued to be harassed in the assemblies. Which is why there’s all that stuff in the NRO about NAB officials being prevented from seeking the arrest of members of the assemblies without consulting special ethics committees.

The ‘problem’ is that the NRO has worked for Zardari twice over. It allowed him safe passage to parliament (the president is part of it) and therefore gave him immunity. And it’s robbed his opponents of something straightforward and deliciously powerful as Mr Ten Per Cent.

While nothing can be done about the immunity bit now (though the most rabid of Zardari’s foes will still hope there’s a way), breathing new life into the issue of the NRO will bring front and centre all the messy stories again. Stories of country estates and safe-deposit boxes and necklaces and oil-for-food money and multi-million-dollar bank accounts.

Yes, Zardari is constitutionally impregnable. Indeed, the closest thing to him is CJ Iftikhar, who will retire a few months after Zardari either resigns or is re-elected. But, as we’ve seen, in Pakistan, legal certainties are only worth so much. So Zardari’s foes will try whatever else they can to dislodge him or at least make him very uncomfortable in office.

But don’t feel sorry for the president. Politics here is cut-throat and he can fight in the trenches with the best of them. Besides, he’s got a significant advantage over his rivals – he can make his own destiny. Pakistanis are a forgiving lot; corruption is overlooked when the government delivers on some of its promises to the people.

From villain to semi-hero, Zardari is on the threshold. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to be aware of that, or he simply doesn’t care. True to form, Mr NRO is letting the moment pass.

Balochistan.. India being blamed to justify military action

Indian interference is being alleged in Balochistan to justify the military operation, says Jamhoori Watan Party President Shahzain Bugti.

Speaking as chief guest at a seminar entitled ‘Threats to National Security and Our Responsibilities’ here on Wednesday, Bugti said the government should prove its allegations of Indian interference in Balochistan if it had any evidence. ‘We are accused of being pro-India. We would have voted for inclusion of Balochistan in India in 1947 if we had been in favour of India,’ he said.

Bugti, the grandson of late chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti, said the federal government always wronged Balochistan. ‘Baloch people were asked to come down from mountains in 1960 and hanged. Nawab Akbar Bugti was assassinated and Gwadar was snatched from Balochistan.’ Bugti said allegations of target killing of Punjabis were being levelled to justify the presence of Frontier Constabulary in Balochistan.

He said Baloch people did not hate Punjabis. He said his party was criticised for demanding royalty for gas. He however said that his party demanded the royalty for the Balochistan government and not for itself.

He said the gas emanating from Balochistan was not available in most parts of the province and its rates were higher there than Punjab and Sindh.

Awami National Party Secretary General Ehsan Wyne said he spent three months with the late Bugti in Kot Lakhpat Jail, but never heard him talking against Pakistan.

He said there had been eight military operations in Balochistan so far and the last one was still in progress. He said people revolted as they did in East Pakistan whenever they were deprived of their rights.

He said people’s rights would have to be restored for trial of Pervez Musharraf. He said Punjab was abused for the evils of its bureaucracy. Pakistan Democratic Party Secretary General Nawaz Gondal said most problems being faced by the country had been created by dictators, who destroyed all national institutions to prolong their rules.

He said the country needed an institution to prevent loot and plunder. He said Musharraf should be tried for the assassination of the late Bugti.

He said democracy had not been restored in the country despite the general election, adding that the incumbent government was civil, but not democratic.

Former federal law minister SM Masood said the country was facing problems because of various institutions’ attempts to usurp each other’s powers. He said the tug of war destabilised the country, while foreign pressures were also creating problems.

Violence in Gojra & Qadyani lobby


German football song irks Muslims

, Balochistan Ki Rooh by Nazir Naji, Part 2

Nato reconfirmed outside interference in Balochistan:

Pakistan received credible information regarding outside interference in Balochistan and the Nato reconfirmed it and hinted that arms and ammunition were being smuggled to Balochistan from Afghanistan.

Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit Khan said this in a news briefing at the Karachi Press Club on Wednesday.He said that the Indo-Pak dialogue was suspended after the Mumbai attacks but efforts were under way to restart confidence building measures (CBMs) between the two neighbouring countries.

He said there was a need of shifting the paradigm from conflict to cooperation as far as the relations between Pakistan and India were concerned.He said both Pakistani and Indian prime ministers in their meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh agreed and emphasised the need for initiating dialogue between the two countries.

ìWe want to restart the CBMs,î Abdul Basit said and added that prime ministers of both the countries also agreed on talks between foreign secretaries in New York in September this year and issues like Sir Creek, terrorism and Kashmir would come under discussion.

He said there should be no point-scoring on the Mumbai attacks as Pakistan itself was a target of terrorism and during the current year, about 340 people had lost their lives in 26 suicide attacks in the country.

To a query on increase in the strength of the US personnel at Islamabad’s mission, the spokesman said 1,000 US Marines who will be coming to Pakistan will be deployed at the US mission in Islamabad. He said there was no restriction on the number of personnel that a foreign mission could station at its mission but it was done through mutual understanding.

Responding to a question regarding the US-India defence agreement, he said Pakistan was keeping a vigilant eye on the agreement and it was not unaware of its defence. He, however, said Pakistan did not want to join the arms race in the region.

Basit said Pakistan wants stability in Afghanistan because stable Afghanistan is in Pakistanís interest. Kalashnikov culture, heroin and human trafficking, all have links to Afghanistan, he said, adding Pakistan had planned trilateral talks with all the neighbouring countries of the region for the resolution of these issues, which followed 30 years of war in Afghanistan.

He said Pakistan has political/strategic relations with China but now it wanted economic ties with this time-tested friend. President Asif Ali Zardari had visited China thrice and now he would visit China in the current month, he said.

He said the Friends of Democratic Pakistan would meet in Istanbul on Aug 25. He said the United Nations Commission constituted for probe into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto could call Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf. About Dr Aafia Siddiqui, he said: “We are ready to cooperate with her but also want cooperation from her side.” He added that the government had offered to bear her full legal expenses.

Baitullah Mehsud believed dead

Taleban commander Baitullah Mehsud believed dead

Baitullah Mehsud


Baitullah Mehsud talks to the media in South Waziristan in 2008

Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s top Taleban commander and the country’s most wanted man, is believed to have been killed in a US drone strike, a senior Pakistani official has said.

“He has most likely been killed in the strike, but we are still awaiting official confirmation,” a senior Pakistani official told The Times today.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government has "information" that Mehsud is dead but not yet official confirmation. An intelligence officer in South Waziristan has claimed that Mehsud's funeral had already taken place.

"He was killed with his wife and he was buried in Nargosey," the officer told a news agency, referring to a tiny settlement about half a mile, from the site of the missile attack, believed carried out by a pilotless US drone aircraft.

Earlier this week it was claimed that the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban militant group may have been killed when two missiles fired by a US drone on a house in Zangar village in South Waziristan. It was confirmed that one of Mehsud's two wives, who has not been named in accordance with local custom, was killed in the strike.

Pakistani and US authorities are investigating the claim that Mr Mehsud, who is suffering from a serious kidney ailment and has not been seen for several weeks, had also been killed in the strike. A local official told The Times today that it is a “high probability” he is dead.

According to the senior Pakistani official, messages intercepted by intelligence indicated that the Taleban have been “in a great panic” this week.

If confirmed, Mr Mehsud's demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and US efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda. His death would be a great setback to the militants who have expanded their influence in northwestern Pakistan.

Mr Mehsud has close links with al-Qaeda and has been accused of organising dozens of suicide attacks in Pakistan, including the one which killed the former premier Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

The Taleban leader, who has a $US5 million bounty on his head, has been the target of repeated US strikes in recent months. According to Pakistani security officials, he narrowly escaped an attack on the funeral of a Taleban leader last month.

Mr Mehsud is the chief of Tehrik-e-Taliban, an outlawed Islamic militant group which is also involved in cross border attacks on US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani troops have blocked all supply routes to his area and are preparing for a ground assault on his stronghold. Pakistan’s air force jets regularly pound the tribal area bordering Afghanistan which Pakistani officials say has become the main centre of al Qaeda and Taleban activities.

Mr Mehsud is believed to have more than 20,000 fighters under his command, however recent missile strikes against him and his supporters have limited his ability to carry out terror attacks.

Publicly, Islamabad opposes US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August 2008, around 50 such strikes have killed more than 500 people.