Wednesday, August 26, 2009

So who is this guy?

Hakimullah Mehsud, who the Taliban say is their new leader in Pakistan, came to prominence in 2007 after a number of spectacular raids against the army.

At that time he was one of several commanders under Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who the militants have admitted was killed in a US drone strike in early August.

When I met Hakimullah - a nom de guerre, his real name is Zulfiqar - in South Waziristan in October 2007 he had just been appointed Baitullah's chief spokesman.

His audacious capture of 300 Pakistani soldiers had led to us travelling to meet the kidnapped troops.

Still only 28 at the time, Hakimullah was clearly someone to be reckoned with.

Despite his pleasant demeanour and cheeky smile, danger radiated from the man.

The kidnapping incident added to his prestige. Pakistan's government eventually released several high-profile militants in line with Taliban demands.

Since then, Hakimullah Mehsud's star has continued to rise.

Battle skills

But his beginnings were hardly auspicious.

Born in the region of Kotkai near the town of Jandola in South Waziristan, Zulfiqar Mehsud's only schooling was at a small village madrassa in Hangu district.

One of the other students at the time was Baitullah Mehsud, but he dropped out.

Zulfiqar Mehsud later joined up with his fellow clansman in jihad (holy war), initially acting as bodyguard and aide to the older militant.

Baitullah's consolidation of most of Pakistan's Taliban groups into a single entity provided growing opportunities for his talented young friend.

Zulfiqar Mehsud was already famous within the Taliban for his skills in battle - his ability to handle a Kalashnikov and a Toyota pick-up were legendary.

"He is the best after Nek Mohammad," our Taliban driver told us during a hair-raising journey before the meeting in 2007.

Nek Mohammad was the founder of the Taliban movement in Pakistan.

He was killed in a suspected US drone attack in 2004, but not before he had made the Pakistani Taliban a force to be reckoned with.


The comparison with Hakimullah Mehsud sits well - both handsome young men with that extra aggressive instinct.

But Hakimullah Mehsud also has a wild streak which borders on the reckless.

When we met on that autumn day in 2007, he took us for a drive.

To demonstrate his skill with the vehicle, he drove like a man possessed, manoeuvring around razor sharp bends at impossible speeds.

He finished the demonstration by braking inches short of a several hundred foot drop.

While the rest of us sat in stunned silence, he just laughed chillingly and stuck the car in reverse to smoothly continue the journey.

"I went to Karachi once when I was a small boy," he told me when I asked how and where he had travelled in Pakistan.

"But I used to go to Punjab quite often, and have been to Islamabad several times, though not recently."

I asked him when he was last in Islamabad.

"It was in 2005," he answered, before adding spontaneously: "I was looking for [former President Pervez] Musharraf, but I couldn't find him."

He then rattled off the names of a number of Islamabad landmarks which he had scouted during his trip.

"I looked all over, but he was not around so I came back."

Convoy attacks

Our second meeting was in May 2008, at the now famous press conference organised by Baitullah Mehsud.

Hakimullah Mehsud had become a commander in his own right - masterminding the campaign against the Nato convoys in the Khyber tribal region and Peshawar.

He was later appointed Taliban commander for the regions of Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai.

In these areas, he has played a key role in a campaign of attrition against the Pakistani army.

In this respect he remains true to Baitullah Mehsud's ideology - carving out a Taliban emirate in Pakistan and taking on the army to defend it.

His appointment will be seen as confirmation that hardliners are in the ascendancy in the Pakistani Taliban.

It remains to be seen, though, whether he can actually bring all the Taliban factions under his control.

If he can, then Pakistan's security establishment's recent claims of victory may have come a bit too soon.

Via BBC.


This may not have been that smart a move on the part of the TTP. While this Mehsud certainly seems like a highly competent commander on the ground, it remains to be seen what sort of grasp he has on overall campaign strategy, let alone running an organization (the TTP is not in firm control of the regions he was in charge of, except possibly Orakzai). In particular, I suspect his youth and recklessness, which benefit him so much when chasing down a convoy in the Khyber Pass, will be potentially disastrous in the politico-military game the Taliban is playing with Islamabad.

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