U.S. mil­i­tary takes fight to Tal­iban leader in Pak­istan

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY RAZA KHAN AND SARA A. CARTER

PE­SHAWAR, Pak­istan | Un­manned air­craft have be­gun tar­get­ing Pak­istani Tal­iban leader Bait­ul­lah Mehsud, a shift in strat­egy by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion that may re­flect ef­forts to pre-empt a Tal­iban spring of­fen­sive against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The U.S. mil­i­tary avoided hit­ting Mr. Mehsud’s forces in 2007 and 2008, dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, when the Tal­iban leader waged a cam­paign of sui­cide bomb­ings in­side Pak­istan and hu­mil­i­ated the Pak­istani army in his tribal strong­hold near the Afghan bor­der.

How­ever, Mr. Mehsud formed an al­liance last month with two other Tal­iban com­man­ders in North and South Waziris­tan, a po- ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment be­cause ter­ri­tory con­trolled just by Mr. Mehsud does not touch the Afghan bor­der. With the al­liance, he now has an in­let to Afghanistan.

Sar­faraz Khan, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Pe­shawar, traced the new U.S. ag­gres­sive­ness to the Tal­iban al­liance.

“In or­der to stop uni­fy­ing Tal­iban groups from launch­ing mas­sive at­tacks against NATO and in par­tic­u­lar newly arriving U.S. troops in Afghanistan, such at­tacks have be­come in­dis­pens­able on Amer­i­cans’ part,” he said.

On March 1, two mis­sile strikes sus­pected to have come from U.S. drones killed up to 12 peo­ple and in­jured scores in a Mehsud strong­hold in the South Waziris­tan tribal zone, a se­nior Pak­istani of­fi­cial in the South Waziris­tan cap­i­tal, Wana, told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

The mis­siles hit a com­pound in Haibat Khel vil­lage within the Sararogha area of South Waziris­tan. Mil­i­tants loyal to Mr. Mehsud im­me­di­ately cor­doned off the area.

The of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak for at­tri­bu­tion, could not con­firm pub­lished re­ports that the dead in­cluded four for­eign-born mil­i­tants.

Tar­get­ing Mehsud strongholds in South Waziris­tan rep­re­sents a shift that be­gan shortly af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama took of­fice. A Feb. 14 strike that killed more than 30 peo­ple was ap­par­ently the first to hit Mr. Mehsud’s tribal home­land.

Other at­tacks on Mehsud fol­low­ers have been re­ported in Pak­istan’s Fed­er­ally Ad­min­is­tered Tribal Ar­eas, in­clud­ing a Feb. 16 drone at­tack in Kur­ram. One of Mr. Mehsud’s lieu­tenants, Hakimul­lah Mehsud, had been put in charge of that re­gion.

CIA Di­rec­tor Leon E. Panetta, when asked last week whether Mr. Mehsud poses a threat to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, spoke in gen­eral terms without men­tion­ing Mr. Mehsud by name.

“Ob­vi­ously, you know, we have iden­ti­fied those mil­i­tants and ter­ror­ists that con­sti­tute a threat not only to U.S. forces and to Amer­i­cans and peo­ple in Afghanistan, but also those that con­sti­tute threats to the Pak­ista­nis, and we are work­ing with the Pak­ista­nis to iden­tify those who rep­re­sent com­mon threats to both of us in our ef­forts,” he told re­porters at his first press con-

fer­ence since tak­ing of­fice.

Mr. Panetta also said: “What is im­por­tant is that we do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to dis­rupt their lead­er­ship and to make sure that they are not able to come to­gether in a way that makes them ef­fec­tive in terms of go­ing af­ter Amer­i­cans.”

Sararogha, where the mis­siles struck March 1, is known as the site of a 2005 at­tempt by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate a truce with the Tal­iban.

When Pak­istani forces launched an of­fen­sive against Mr. Mehsud in 2007 af­ter the truce col­lapsed, his fight­ers cap­tured scores of Pak­istani troops and ran­somed them for mil­i­tants held in Pak­istani jails.

Both Pak­istani and U.S. of­fi­cials have ac­cused Mr. Mehsud of lead­ing the De­cem­ber 2007 as­sas­si­na­tion of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Be­nazir Bhutto. Mr. Mehsud de­nied any in­volve­ment, and Mrs. Bhutto’s fol­low­ers said later that they doubted Mr. Mehsud was re­spon­si­ble.

Dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, the ap­par­ent im­mu­nity of Mr. Mehsud and his forces from U.S. drone at­tacks prompted a spate of ru­mors that the mil­i­tant leader was some­how in­volved with the Amer­i­cans.

Af­ter the March 1 at­tack, lo­cal tribes­men told The Times that they ex­pect Mr. Mehsud to re­tal­i­ate by tar­get­ing U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Mr. Mehsud is the head of Tehreek-e-Tal­iban Pak­istan (TTP), an um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion of Pak­istani Tal­iban, as well as the un­de­clared leader of the re­cent al­liance known as the Shura It­te­hadul Mu­ja­hedeen (SIM).

In form­ing the al­liance, mil­i­tant com­man­ders said they had two goals: fight­ing U.S. troops in Afghanistan and im­pos­ing Shariah law through­out Pak­istan’s tribal ar­eas.

Syed Alam Mehsud, vice pres­i­dent of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party in the North West Fron­tier Prov­ince, told The Times that the mis­sile strikes will have a pro­found im­pact.

“It seems the Amer­i­cans have come to re­al­ize that af­ter the uni­fi­ca­tion of ma­jor Tal­iban groups and Bait­ul­lah be­ing its head, the TTP chief is the real threat and that is why they have started strik­ing his strongholds with mis­siles from drones,” he said.

He added, “I think Bait­ul­lah’s turn has come. The rea­son is the an­tic­i­pated spring of­fen­sive of Tal­iban to start in April and the ar­rival of thou­sands of ad­di­tional [U.S. troops] in Afghanistan’s south.”

Sara A . Carter re­ported from Wash­ing­ton.

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