In May of last year, a convoy of journalists made its way from Peshawar up into the remote reaches of South Waziristan. They were responding to an invitation from the diminutive, diabetic, and hypertensive commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban. With characteristic grandiosity, the commander laid out a lavish feast for the reporters before sharing his reason for summoning them: an official declaration of jihad against U.S forces across the border in Afghanistan.
Meet Baitullah Mehsud -- Pakistan's biggest problem, and the man who has taken his country of 176 million to the center of the West's war on terror. Once described by a Pakistani general as a "soldier of peace," he now carries a 50 million rupee (about $615,300) bounty on his head from Pakistan and a $5 million one from the United States. Mehsud is earning the ire of the Pakistani military and Western policymakers alike as his movement destabilizes Pakistan, and the United States has destroyed several of his hide-outs with drone strikes in recent months. His now-famous 2008 press conference -- which came almost exactly a decade after Osama bin Laden called for the killing of Americans in a similar announcement just across the border in Khost, Afghanistan -- was an extraordinary piece of stagecraft even for a commander with a certain penchant for public flare. By incautiously exposing his location to a big group of journalists, Mehsud should have facilitated his own capture; that he didn't serves as ongoing testament to the incompetence (and perhaps lack of will) of those who purport to pursue him.
Mehsud's growing influence is of particular concern to Western policymakers because Pakistan represents the gravest general security threat to the international community -- the prospect of a nuclear-armed al Qaeda. Keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of the hands of Islamist extremists is contingent on a stable Pakistani state, and Mehsud is the one man perhaps most capable of destabilizing it.
According to journalists from the tribal region, Mehsud's force structure is diverse: It includes approximately 12,000 local fighters, many belonging to his own Mehsud tribe, and close to 4,000 foreign fighters, predominantly Arabs and Central Asians seasoned in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. Many of them spent time in al Qaeda training camps and can't return to their home countries for fear of prosecution. By giving them a cause and a home -- in parts of South Waziristan where they are accessible to him on short notice -- Mehsud has expanded his corps of fighters. He also has a stable of teenage boys who have been indoctrinated to serve as suicide bombers. For the last five years, Mehsud has used this army to terrorize Pakistan with suicide bombings, hostage takings, and brazen military offensives. In one spectacular show of strength, he took close to 300 Pakistani soldiers, including officers, hostage in South Waziristan in August 2007. Mehsud demanded that his top militant prisoners be freed in exchange. It was a glorious moment for Mehsud when the government agreed after just 2½ months.