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.

Published April 9, 2009 10:44AM (EDT)

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.

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Barack Obama Pakistan Taliban U.s. Military