The leader of the Pakistani Taliban vows to strike America

Rival Islamic militant groups are joining forces to make Pakistan into a stronghold -- and are receiving support from Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency.

Topics: Afghanistan, Al-Qaida, Barack Obama, Pakistan, Taliban, U.S. Military,

The leader of the Pakistani Taliban vows to strike America

Last Thursday, at 7 a.m., Baitullah Mehsud dialed the telephone number of Alamgir Bhittani, a radio correspondent in the Tank region of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. The voice of “Bait,” as the Pashtuns call the feared leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was soft and flattering.

He had called the journalist to boast about his exploits, telling him that his fighters were the ones who had created a blood bath the previous day at a police academy near the northeastern Pakistani city of Lahore. He told Bhittani that he had ordered his men to “eliminate” as many supporters of what he called the traitorous Pakistani regime as possible.

Wearing stolen uniforms, the group of 10 terrorists had gained access to the training camp to kill recruits. The attackers took hostages and hid in one of the buildings. Helicopters and elite army and police units appeared on the scene. In the end, three of the terrorists blew themselves up, and the rest were arrested. When the blood bath was over, eight police recruits were lying dead in the barrack’s yard.

The attack, Mehsud said, was in retaliation for President Asif Ali Zardari allowing the Americans to pursue him and his allies in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I am not afraid of death,” Mehsud boasted, before adding a threat. Soon, he said, the Americans would also be made to suffer. “We will take the battle to Washington with an attack that will astound the whole world.”

Washington takes this threat seriously. Since his election in November, President Barack Obama has been urging his allies to stop treating the drama of the Afghanistan war as an isolated problem but, rather, as a regional conflict that also has to be conducted in Pakistan.

When Obama explained his plans for an intensified Afghanistan campaign at the NATO summit in Strasbourg and the southwestern German city of Baden-Baden last weekend, there was almost as much mention of Pakistan as neighboring Afghanistan. The president has also redefined the goals of the war. His aim is no longer to bring democracy to poverty-stricken Afghanistan, but to hunt down and defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama wants stability in the region.

The new strategy has even yielded a new abbreviation in military jargon: AfPak. And its goal is to save AfPak, which is in danger.

Iraq veteran Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, hopes to interrupt what he calls a “downward spiral” in the war by increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 68,000 and, later, to 78,000. In addition to their current operations along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier with Pakistan, U.S. troops will also assume responsibility for fighting the Taliban in the southern part of the country next year. When that happens, combat operations along almost the entire border with Pakistan will be under U.S. military command.

Instead of an “Afghanization” of the conflict through the training of Afghan soldiers and police, the new strategy will result in an Americanization of the war.

The Americans are also redefining the war as a struggle against three enemies who, from their bases in Pakistan, threaten Afghanistan, their own country and the entire Western world. The first are the Afghan Taliban fighters, led by Mullah Omar, who have left Afghanistan for their new stronghold in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Their allies are the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan under the command of the notorious Baitullah Mehsud. Finally, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, which continues to operate in Pakistan, provides ideological and material support for both groups. Bin Laden and the hardcore of his network are also believed to be based in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have apparently been operating for some time.

Obama has described the regions on both sides of the border as the “world’s most dangerous place.” The biggest threat there, for Obama, is not just the possibility of the West suffering a defeat in Afghanistan, but the potential collapse of Pakistan, a nuclear power. The effect on the power structure in this part of the world and the consequences for the West would be incalculable.

David Kilcullen, a top advisor to Gen. Petraeus, recently told the Washington Post that “within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” adding that such a scenario “would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.” The U.S. government now plans to spend up to $500 million a year to better equip and train the Pakistani military as part of an “emergency war budget.”

The fighting has already spread to both sides of the border. More than half a year ago, the Americans tried to strike the Islamist militants in their hideouts on Pakistani territory with precision guided missiles, a campaign that began under the Bush administration and that Obama is now continuing, only with greater force.

U.S. military commanders no longer ask the government in Islamabad to sanction the airstrikes, which are conducted with unmanned Predator drones. According to a Pakistani intelligence report from February, there have already been 80 such attacks this year alone, claiming 375 lives, including those of both civilians and militants.

In January, Usama al-Kini, the head of al-Qaida in Pakistan, was one of about a dozen senior al-Qaida leaders killed in the attacks so far. Al-Kini, who was on the FBI’s “most wanted” list, is believed to have been responsible for the first major al-Qaida attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. The Americans celebrated his death as an important blow against the terrorist network in Pakistan.

CIA director Leon Panetta praises the drones as the “most effective weapon” in the struggle against militant groups in Pakistan. Last week, the Americans attacked one of Mehsud’s camps in northwestern Pakistan, killing 12 militants.

Mehsud, 35, is seen as the prototype of the ruthlessly ambitious new generation of Taliban fighters. During the U.S. invasion in November 2001, he was in command of only a small group of fighters. Later on, he helped hide fleeing al-Qaida leaders in the mountain villages of South Waziristan. The “Arabs,” the derisive term the local population uses for foreign militants, showed their appreciation by providing Mehsud with financial support and training for his fighters.

Mehsud was once a physical education teacher at a Quran school. He is relatively uneducated and carries no religious title. Nevertheless, he has installed, and is systematically expanding, a reign of terror in the tribal regions. Traitors are labeled “spies” and “enemies of Islam” and are publicly beheaded. When the family members of one such “traitor” were carrying the body of their relative to his grave, a suicide bomber blew up the mourners.

Mehsud is like a magnet, attracting extremists from around the world. They include former Kashmiri militants seeking a new challenge now that their organization has been banned as well as retired trainers for the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Hundreds of young jihadists from the Gulf states, Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Chechnya have also joined Mehsud’s group.

This has led to the development of the world’s most important training center for international terrorism in Waziristan. Even rival groups have joined forces there.

The credit for this reconciliation of former adversaries goes to Islamic fundamentalist Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban until the fall of 2001 and Afghanistan’s quasi head of state at the time. One of the founders of the Taliban, Omar lost an eye in battle. He is believed to have married one of bin Laden’s daughters and given safe haven to al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar’s Taliban is not only regaining strength in Afghanistan, but is also becoming a force to be reckoned with elsewhere. At the beginning of the year, as the New York Times reported, Omar sent a six-member team to Waziristan to warn the Pakistani militant groups about the Americans’ new Afghanistan strategy and appeal to them to put aside old rivalries. The goal, they said, must be to join forces to liberate Afghanistan from the American occupiers. In a letter accompanying the envoys, the spiritual leader of the Taliban wrote: “If anybody really wants to wage jihad, he must fight the occupation forces inside Afghanistan.”

Nuclear nightmares

Surprisingly, Baitullah Mehsud was receptive to the appeal for unity and aligned himself with other Taliban leaders. In late February, fliers written in Urdu turned up in the Pakistani-Afghan border region announcing the formation of a new platform for jihad. The Shura Ittihad-ul Mujahideen (SIM), or Council of United Holy Warriors, declared that the alliance of all militants had been formed at the request of Mullah Omar and bin Laden. The group made it clear that, from now on, its enemies would include not only Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, but also U.S. President Barack Obama.

“There is a new quality to this,” says Imtiaz Gul in his office at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “These groups are now the Pakistani face of al-Qaida.” Gul, who has just written a book about terror in the tribal areas, is convinced that all Taliban leaders are in close contact with al-Qaida. According to Gul, their training camps for suicide bombers are run by foreign al-Qaida commanders. “Even the materials and style of the explosive vests the Taliban are now using are identical with those of al-Qaida suicide bombers,” says Gul.

The expansion of the combat zone is driving Pakistan toward the abyss. The militant attacks pose a threat to the state, but so do the military operations against the Taliban, which may be doing as much damage as good. The drone attacks in the border region drive the extremists into Pakistan’s interior and its cities. Besides, the attacks, which almost always claim the lives of Pakistani women and children in addition to militants, serve as a recruiting tool for new jihadists.

“I am strongly opposed to the drones,” says Petraeus advisor Kilcullen. “What good does it do us if we have eliminated half of all al-Qaida leaders but have antagonized the entire Pakistani population?” Kilcullen, an Australian, masterminded the most recent U.S. strategy in Iraq, which went hand-in-hand with the troop buildup. He now believes that “we can negotiate with 90 percent of those with whom we are fighting — but from a position of strength.” He also helped develop Obama’s new AfPak strategy.

The Pakistani military is hardly capable of stopping the Taliban’s victory march. A few weeks ago, the extremists gained control over the idyllic Swat Valley in the heart of Pakistan, where they have introduced Islamic Sharia law and have taken over an emerald mine to help finance their movement. The government in Islamabad is so weak that it agreed to a cease-fire with one of the most ruthless militants in the valley, Maulana Fazlullah. Fazlullah and his thugs have terrorized the residents of the Malakand region for more than two years.

The terror has since penetrated into the country’s interior, including the state of Punjab and its capital, Lahore. The city, Pakistan’s liberal cultural center, is near the border with India. Evidence of the city’s mounting Talibanization includes signs in show windows announcing that female children will no longer be served. In October, Islamic militants blew up beverage shops near Lahore’s main train station because unmarried couples were allegedly using the shops for their romantic trysts. Three bombs were detonated at a local art festival a short time later. Nowadays, terrorist acts claim more lives in Pakistan than in neighboring Afghanistan. Last year, such attacks claimed 2,267 lives.

The military avoids serious confrontation with the extremists. Many officers still do not see the Taliban as their enemy. Pakistan’s true enemy, in their view, is India, the country from which Pakistan once seceded and with which it has since waged three wars. Quite a few officers say that the fight against terrorism in the northwestern part of the country is being forced upon them by the Americans and that they are fighting the wrong war.

For decades, the military leadership has granted the ISI substantial freedom in its treatment of terrorist groups. This laissez-faire attitude gives them room to maneuver.

Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a pleasant man with carefully parted hair, sits in his elegant office at ISI headquarters in Islamabad. “The ISI is a security agency and is on the front lines of defending the country,” he says.

In truth, however, the intelligence agency pursues its own covert foreign policy. Pasha points out that in the 1980s, Pakistan — together with the Americans — supported the Afghan mujahedin in their war against the Soviets. This type of assistance was considered desirable at the time, he explains, and adds: “You must understand that both Afghan and Indian intelligence are working against us. It would certainly be strange if we were the only ones who were doing nothing.”

The Americans have long suspected the ISI of playing a double game. After Sept. 11, 2001, former President Pervez Musharraf willingly pursued the al-Qaida terrorists who had sought refuge in the border region and received billions in military aid in return. At the same time, however, he spared the Taliban leaders, allowing them to go into hiding.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Obama administration officials were unusually candid in accusing the ISI of supporting the Taliban in its struggle against the Western alliance and the Karzai government in Kabul. That support, they said, includes ammunition and fuel, as well as the recruitment of fighters. The officials claimed that wiretapped telephone conversations prove that members of Pakistani intelligence have even given the Taliban advance warning of planned raids.

These conclusions are consistent with the impression that Mike McConnell, the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA), a U.S. intelligence service, gained on a visit to Islamabad last year. A Pakistani two-star general candidly explained the mind-set of his fellow military commanders to McConnell, noting that although the army is fighting the Taliban at the instruction of politicians, it also supports the militants. The Americans, the general reasoned, will eventually leave Afghanistan, at which point it will be up to the Pakistani military to prevent India from advancing into the power vacuum. “That is why we must support the Taliban,” the general said.

According to Bruce Riedel, an advisor to Obama, Pakistan has “created a Frankenstein that threatens the Pakistani state itself.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has described Pakistan as an “international migraine,” noting that it has nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of terrorists — a nightmare scenario, in the wake of 9/11.

ISI director Pasha is familiar with these fears in the capitals of the West. He pours tea into cups made of fine English porcelain. He says that he is saddened by the notion that the world believes his country could fall into the hands of terrorists. “That is unimaginable,” he says. “It will never happen.”

But the general has been known to make mistakes. Only recently, he referred to brutal Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud as a good “patriot.” Good for Pakistan or the ISI, or for whom?

The American government has now placed a $5 million bounty on Mehsud’s head.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe’s most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>