x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pakistan targets Taliban leader

Eliminating Baitullah Mehsud and his network is now seen by many Pakistanis as a national imperative yet Pakistan and the US have competing strategic priorities in the region even as their leaders declare a common enemy. Public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants but Pakistanis still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama, according to a poll.

In an editorial in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper on Sunday, in reference to the amir of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan said: "As long as he is alive and free, he has the will and capability to cause mayhem all over the country. The state simply cannot fail to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud and his network." Public opinion in Pakistan has become increasingly negative towards the Taliban over the last two years but most Pakistanis still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama, a poll showed on Wednesday. The WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May while Pakistan's army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that most Pakistanis regard the Pakistani Taliban and al Q'aeda as a critical threat to their nation. Those Pakistanis who view militants and local Taliban as a critical threat had risen to 81 per cent, up from 34 per cent in a similar poll in late 2007, the University of Maryland polling project found. Bloomberg reported: "US officials 'worry Pakistan may be biting off too much' by attacking Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in the mountains of South Waziristan before defeating militants in the less-remote Swat Valley, said Daniel Markey, South Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Pakistan's ability to fight on a second front before gains in Swat are consolidated is a cause for concern, said a State Department official dealing with South Asia, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The US wants to see Pakistan restore sufficient control in Waziristan to counter Islamic extremism, the official said. "That goal is unlikely to be met, according to analysts. If Mehsud can be captured or killed, he would likely be replaced by Taliban leaders even more eager to fight US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan, Markey said in a telephone interview. "President Barack Obama says the Taliban's influence in a nuclear-armed state, and their hosting of al Qa'eda forces in Pakistan's northwest, form the greatest security threat to Americans. 'Waziristan is at the centre of the fight' to reverse that influence, said Talat Masood, a political consultant and retired army lieutenant general in Islamabad." McClatchy Newspapers reported: "A militant commander in northwest Pakistan tore up a peace deal with the Pakistani government Tuesday, dealing a major blow to the government's campaign against Islamist insurgents in the extremist-controlled Waziristan region. "The commander, Gul Bahadur, who heads the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, ended his pact with Islamabad and threatened more attacks on the army after an assault on a military convoy in his area Sunday claimed the lives of at least 16 soldiers. "Pakistan's military had sought to confine the battle in Waziristan to warlord Baitullah Mehsud, a rival of Bahadur and an ally of al Qa'eda who's led the militant takeovers of several other regions in northwest Pakistan, but now it finds itself facing both Baitullah Mehsud and Bahadur, as well as a third Taliban commander in the region bordering Afghanistan. Maulvi Nazir, an ally of Bahadur, also announced the end of a peace agreement with Pakistan in recent days." The Independent reported on the death of Qari Zainuddin, which has opened a window on a complicated, controversial and perilous element of the battle against militants inside Pakistan. Mr Zainuddin had been killed by an assassin apparently dispatched by Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. "Mr Zainuddin, himself a Taliban leader who supported al Qa'eda and jihad against Western troops in Afghanistan, had recently been recruited by the Pakistani authorities to join their battle to kill Baitullah Mehsud, who has emerged as the country's deadliest militant. In essence, Islamabad is recruiting anti-American fighters to bolster a joint US-Pakistani operation. "The arrangement underlines the competing strategic priorities in the region for Pakistan and the US, even as their leaders opt in public for the language of common interests and shared enemies. 'Pakistan just wants to concentrate on the Pakistani Taliban. They do not want to go after the Afghan Taliban,' said Giles Dorronosoro, a regional expert at the Carnegie Endowment. 'The US wants to put the Pakistan-Afghanistan border under control. They have totally different goals. And the issue is not resolvable.' "The Pakistan army continues to regard militants who are not fighting against it as enduring assets and in recent years a distinction has been made between 'good Taliban' (pro-government) and 'bad Taliban' (anti-government). In most cases, that distinction is between militants who fight in Afghanistan and those who fight in Pakistan "Indeed, for all his loathing of Mr Mehsud - a lot of which was based on historic, personal reasons - Mr Zainuddin was scarcely the model of a hero rising up against the local tyrant. In interviews that catapulted him from obscurity, Mr Zainuddin pledged fealty to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, declared his fondness for al Qa'eda, and voiced support for holy war against US and Nato forces. Part of his quarrel with Mr Mehsud was a difference over the focus of their militant activities. While Mr Mehsud and his allies in the Swat Valley were principally fighting against the Pakistani military, Mr Zainuddin believed that it was wrong to attack fellow Muslims. "For the administration of Barack Obama, Pakistan's recruitment of such individuals poses a pressing dilemma. Since the beginning of the year and the emergence of Washington's new Af-Pak policy, a decision has clearly been taken to try and eliminate Mr Mehsud, a former bodybuilder, and a flurry of missile strikes have targeted him, most recently this week. "As a result, while the US might think twice before turning away help in the effort to kill a man on whose head it has placed a $5m bounty, the case of Mr Zainuddin is a powerful reminder that one's enemy's enemy might not always be a friend." Meanwhile, The New York Times reported: "For the past month and a half, the Pakistani military has claimed success in retaking the Swat Valley from the Taliban, clawing back its own territory from insurgents who only a short time ago were extending their reach toward the heartland of the country. "Yet from a helicopter flying low over the valley last week, the low-rise buildings of Mingora, the largest city in Swat, now deserted and under a 24-hour curfew, appeared unscathed. In the surrounding countryside, farmers had harvested wheat and red onions on their unscarred land. "All that is testament to the fact that the Taliban mostly melted away without a major fight, possibly to return when the military withdraws or to fight elsewhere, military analysts say. About two million people have been displaced in Swat and the surrounding area as the military has carried out its campaign."

pwoodward@thenational.ae