With Pakistan undertaking a major offensive against the Taliban’s safe-haven in Waziristan, Asia Times reports a development with significant strategic implications for the war on terror. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has apparently “sacked” Pakistan’s Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. Under pressure of Pakistan’s new military offensive in South Waziristan, a rift has opened up within the Taliban over the question of whether their efforts ought to be directed toward defeating NATO in Afghanistan, or bringing down the government of Pakistan. This split within the Taliban is a major development.
Prior to the U.S. invasion, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan. Naturally, Omar’s chief goal is to retake Afghanistan and return to power there. To Omar, Pakistan serves chiefly as a safe-haven where his fighters can escape NATO’s attacks and prepare for forays into Afghanistan.
Baitullah Mehsud was appointed by Mullah Omar to head the Pakistani Taliban after the previous leader, Nek Mohammed, was killed in South Waziristan in 2004. Nek Mohammed was a member of the Wazir tribe, while Baitullah Mehsud is a member of South Waziristan’s Mehsud tribe. Gradually, and drawing especially on his famously fierce Mehsud fellow-tribesmen, Baitullah shifted the Pakistani Taliban’s focus away from the war with Afghanistan and toward attacks on Pakistan itself. After President Musharraf sent troops against the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad last July, Mehsud directed an extensive series of suicide bomb attacks against Pakistan’s military–blowing elite special forces up as they traveled on buses or ate in their mess halls. Mehsud has also been fingered by both Pakistan and the CIA for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Mehsud’s attacks greatly weakened Pakistan’s army and threatened to disrupt or overthrow the state itself, potentially placing nuclear materials in Islamist hands. Because of this, Pakistan’s army has finally agreed to take on the Taliban in one of their core strongholds. The army’s key target is Baitullah Mehsud, because he is the mastermind of the anti-government attacks, and because the army seeks exemplary vengeance against the man who ordered the terrorist massacre of so many military personnel.
But the unfolding Pakistani offensive against Baitullah threatens to undermine Mullah Omar’s plans to retake Afghanistan. As I noted in “War in Waziristan,” the American commander in Afghanistan now thinks the Taliban’s expected spring offensive in Afghanistan may have to be called off. If the Taliban’s safe-haven in Pakistan is destroyed, their ability to prosecute a war in Afghanistan could disappear. That’s why Mullah Omar has “fired” and effectively abandoned Baitullah Mehsud on the eve of Mehsud’s confrontation with Pakistan’s army. The report in Asia Times implies that abandoning Baitullah will allow other Taliban commanders to strike a deal with Pakistan to retain their safe-havens in return for putting an end to the suicide attacks in Pakistan’s cities. Yet there are signs that some Pakistani Taliban are unwilling to follow Mullah Omar’s lead. The man appointed by Omar to take over Mehsud’s job as Pakistani commander has refused the job.
So the Taliban is now splitting into multiple factions. As I noted in “Offensive in Waziristan?” the government has already managed to split off Baitullah’s core Mehsud tribal allies from the other key tribe in South Waziristan, the Wazirs. Now, by threatening the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan, the army has managed to create a rift between the refugee Taliban from Afghanistan and the home-grown Pakistani Taliban. This could widen into a significant split, or the Taliban may reunite under Mullah Omar, and simply sacrifice Baitullah and his Mehsud allies to the army.
The broader strategic implications of all this are potentially quite significant. At the moment anyway, the Taliban is facing a choice between giving up its campaign to overthrow Pakistan’s government and it’s attempt to defeat NATO in Afghanistan. If Omar wins out, and Baitullah is abandoned and destroyed, the Taliban’s terror-campaign against Pakistan may be at an end. On the other hand, the abandonment and destruction of Baitullah Mehsud could leave the Taliban in a position to strike a covert deal with the Pakistani army to retain its safe haven.
To some degree Pakistan’s army is taking on Baitullah under American urging, but they are also attacking because Baitullah has gone too far, killing Bhutto, massacring the army’s elite troops with suicide bombers, and generally destabilizing the state. If the army can kill Baitullah and strike a deal to put an end to the Taliban’s Pakistan-directed campaign, it may become much tougher to get the army to follow through with an attack on North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda’s many training camps are located.
So the rift within the Taliban is not entirely or unambiguously good news. Even so, overall this is a very positive development. Ending the Taliban’s terror campaign against Pakistan with a military assault would be a huge development. Several splits are opening up within the Taliban, and all of these can potentially be exploited and widened in the future. Al-Qaeda is also involved here. Baitullah Mehsud is strongly allied with the foreign Uzbek warriors who make up much of al-Qaeda’s muscle in Waziristan. Taking down Baitullah and his Uzbek allies would be a huge blow against al-Qaeda.
Of course, none of this analysis is definitive. The situation is fluid and our information is limited. Even so, in the wake of a serious army assault on the Pakistani Taliban’s top commander, important strategic developments loom. Baitullah has army blood on his hands, and the Asia Times makes it clear that the army wants him killed as an example. That means we’re likely to see some serious fighting ahead. This offensive, however limited, is of critical importance. It is imperative that Pakistan’s army prevail against Baitullah Mehsud.