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Why the US and Pak Army want Baitullah Mehsud

By B Raman
June 26, 2009 15:53 IST
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According to well-informed Pakistani police sources, the US and Pakistani armed forces, intelligence agencies and special forces have launched a co-ordinated hunt for Baitullah Mehsud, the amir of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, in South Waziristan in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan.

It is a co-ordinated and not a joint operation. In a co-ordinated operation the two collaborators operate independently of each other and not jointly together under a common command and control, but keep each other informed in advance of their operational plans to avoid attacking each other by mistake instead of their common target.

The operations undertaken by the Pakistan Army in the Swat Valley of the Malakand Division in the North West Frontier Province since April have started coming in for some criticism because while the Pakistan Army has claimed to have killed over 1,500 foot soldiers of the Pakistani Taliban hardly any important leader has been killed or captured. To avoid such criticism, the focus of the operations in South Waziristan would be on killing Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud, one of his lieutenants, who reportedly trains suicide terrorists, and not on re-establishing immediate territorial control over the Mehsud areas of South Waziristan. A US drone attack killed Qari Hussain on Thursday.

While re-establishing territorial control will be the ultimate objective, eliminating Baitullah would be the immediate objective. The calculation is that if they are eliminated, the TTP could disintegrate.

The initial emphasis would be more on the use of air power than ground forces. While the Pakistanis would use their F-16 aircraft and helicopter gunships, the US would continue to use its unmanned drones with their missiles. The initial emphasis on the use of air power by Pakistan also takes into account the difficulties that it might face in diverting adequate forces to South Waziristan till the operations in the Swat Valley are over.

The internally displaced persons from the Swat Valley, who are presently living in camps in the NWFP, are anxious to go back to their villages in Swat. Making arrangements for their return and for maintaining control over the re-captured areas of the Swat would keep a large number of Pakistani troops tied up in the Swat Valley. Thus, the ability of the Pakistani Army to deploy adequate troops for any ground operations in South Waziristan would be limited. Keeping all these factors in view, the initial focus will be on a co-ordinated hunt for Baitullah from the air.

A well-planned, intelligence-driven and smartly-executed double strike by US drones in South Waziristan on June 23 had targeted Baitullah and Hussain, but it failed to achieve its objective for want of luck despite the operations being executed with precision. The double attack was carried out at a village called Lattaka in the Shabikhel area of South Waziristan, where one of the buildings periodically used by Baitullah is reported to be located. In the first strike directed at the building, Khwaz Ali, a close associate of Baitullah, and five other unidentified persons were killed. The second strike was directed some hours later at the village graveyard where about a hundred people had gathered for the burial of Khwaz Ali. About 80 of the mourners, including some children, are believed to have been killed. It was in tghat attack that Qari Hussain and  Maulvi Sangeen Zadran, a close associate of Serjuddin Haqqani of the Afghan Taliban, were killed.

There have been conflicting reports about Baitullah. Some reports say he was among the mourners, but had left the graveyard before the attack. Others deny that he was among the mourners.

The fact that there has been no public demonstration in the area indicates that the majority of those killed must have been members of the Taliban and not innocent local villagers as subsequently alleged by Taliban elements.

The US has carried out 24 drone strikes in Pakistani territory so far this year as against 36 during the whole of 2008. The Obama Administration is not relenting in its policy of using the drones whenever warranted by specific intelligence without worrying about proforma protests from the Pakistani authorities and leaders or about warnings by some US analysts that increasing civilian casualties due to the drone attacks could drive more tribals into the arms of the Taliban.

The stepped-up Drone strikes, which were initially justified as necessary to disrupt the presence and activities of Al Qaeda remnants in Pakistani territory, are now sought to be used to indirectly help the Pakistan Army in its operations against the Pakistani Taliban.

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B Raman