Commander of the Faithful

Meet the man who is Islamabad and Washington's new Public Enemy No. 1.

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.

With this singular résumé, it was no surprise that Mehsud was named head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan when the group formed in December 2007. Since then, the man known as amir (leader) by his followers has expanded his campaign by launching a remarkably effective drive to erode state writ and disassemble traditional tribal structures, both of which constitute obstacles to Taliban rule. He has ordered the murder of more than 300 tribal elders, clearing the way for Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt to become something of a forward operating base for terrorists.

"He has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan," Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said recently. Indeed, a United Nations report released in September 2007 blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials have accused him of assassinating the country's most popular politician and ex-prime minster, Benazir Bhutto -- a charge he has denied.

Mehsud's connections are extensive throughout Pakistan and the region. He has taken an oath of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is close to al Qaeda's top leadership in the Af-Pak border region and to Qari Tahir Yaldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He is also well-connected to the Punjabi militant groups that have long been operating in Indian-occupied Kashmir. And he maintains cordial ties with the Haqqani network, widely considered by Western officials to be one of the most dangerous groups of veteran jihadists in the region and the bridge between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban movements.

Despite Mehsud's infamy today, little is known about the man or his past. He seems to crave public attention but won't let his face be photographed; he is said to be charismatic in person but not a gifted public speaker. Currently in his late 30s, he was born in Bannu on the southern side of the border between North and South Waziristan. He belongs to the Shabikhel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Unlike most Taliban commanders and tribal elders in the region, he was neither well-educated nor wealthy; he attended a madrasa and school but never finished either. Yet he has been able to capitalize on his humble beginnings to win support. In recent attacks, he has targeted landowners, positioning the Taliban as something of a people's movement. To win respect among insurgents, he has played up a reputation for battlefield bravery and claims to have participated in the anti-Soviet jihad (which is disputed, as he would have been a young boy during most of it). Whatever the truth of his origins, it's clear Mehsud first solidified his position in the insurgency by playing a major role in repelling Pakistani military operations in Waziristan ongoing since 2005.

So, how to check a man who has become so entrenched in the region? A favorite tactic of the Pakistani military has been working with rival leaders. Since 2006, Pakistan has purportedly been trying to pit commanders such as Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur -- the top militant leaders from South and North Waziristan -- against Mehsud. But here, the government has met little success because Mehsud has in many cases dismantled the centuries-old tribal structures in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); there is no mechanism left to mobilize against him. This June, another Taliban commander, Qari Zainuddin, challenged Mehsud and was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. The murder was a stark message to others who might try the same.

One pressure point might be Mehsud's funding stream, but no one is certain exactly where his money is coming from. According to local sources, he taxes trucks passing through the region and might be drawing ransom payments from the kidnappings of Western journalists and officials, both of which have become increasingly common along the Af-Pak border. It's also known that for a time, he received funds from al Qaeda through Sirajuddin Haqqani -- son of legendary Afghan mujahideen commander and insurgent Jalaluddin Haqqani. But no one has yet put forth a practical plan for how to disrupt Mehsud's income stream.

Implausible conspiracy theories about Mehsud also abound, and his carefully maintained mystique does nothing to quell them. Lately, conjectures about who Mehsud's benefactors might be have been running in the Pakistani press and circulating among officials. Many claim he is an "Indian agent" who receives support from the Indian consulates in border cities of Afghanistan. The theory is that India supports Mehsud as retribution for Pakistan's government-backed militant groups meddling in Kashmir. Another emerging candidate is even more absurd: America. The United States wants Pakistan to become so unstable, the reasoning goes, that it is obligated to come in and secure the nukes. How else can one explain why U.S. troops haven't killed him yet? Pakistani intelligence officials were recently quoted in the press saying that they had twice tipped off U.S. forces about Mehsud's whereabouts so that he could be targeted. According to them, the tips were ignored.

Yet if ever there were a time to go after Mehsud, it is now. With Pakistani forces claiming success in their recent operation against the Taliban in the picturesque Swat Valley, which displaced some 2.5 million people, the Tehrik-e-Taliban leader is the next assumed target. Official statements indicate that Pakistan's beleaguered military is finally flexing its muscles for what has been described by the local media as a "decisive showdown" with Mehsud and his fighters. But Pakistanis and Western experts are still skeptical about how firm the military's commitment is. Local tribesmen have accused the Pakistan Army of adopting a policy of appeasement, for example by signing a "peace deal" with Mehsud in February 2005 rather than taking any serious action against him and his fighters. Mehsud certainly never honored any accord with the government, for which he was supposed to disarm his militia and stop cross-border terrorism. Quite the opposite; such agreements have made Mehsud bolder and stronger and have provided him the chance to grow his forces and strengthen his position -- now spanning the whole FATA region and parts of the North-West Frontier Province.

Until he is finally taken down, Mehsud will continue bullying Pakistan's military, challenging the state, uprooting centuries-old tribal structures, and sowing the seeds of chaos across the country. Mehsud recently announced that his next target would be the heart of U.S. power -- the White House in Washington. He hasn't failed to come through on such a promise like that yet.



Uribe Falls to Earth

Colombia's president is used to being wildly popular. But now, his flirtation with a third term may be getting him into trouble.

A year ago this week, Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe was on top of the world. Employing a clever ruse, one of the country's elite army units miraculously (and bloodlessly) rescued 15 hostages who had been held in the jungle for years. The world applauded the operation's stealth and savvy - and the release of the rebels' top political hostage, French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, as well as three U.S. defense contractors and 11 soldiers and police.

Colombia, it seemed, was coming back from the edge, and the country was ecstatic. Two days after the July 2, 2008, hostage rescue, a Gallup poll of Colombians (those with telephones in the four largest cities, at least) put Uribe's approval rating at a remarkable 86 percent. Already, the cattle rancher and conservative president had been well regarded among Colombians for battlefield gains against the 45-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency, a drug-money-fueled leftist force that systematically targets civilians for murder and kidnapping. Uribe oversaw a military buildup that reduced the guerrillas' size by half and limited its range of operations. He negotiated the demobilization of tens of thousands of pro-government paramilitary militias, reducing -- though not eliminating -- those groups' murderous activity.

But what goes up must come down, and Uribe's luck has certainly done so in recent months. By early May 2009, Gallup put Uribe's approval rating at 71 - still pretty good, but its lowest in two years. A plurality of Colombians told the pollster that the country was on the "wrong track." There are bigger problems at work here than a normal come-down: Uribe's spectacular progress in security and economic matters has slowed, and scandals have taken their place in the news.

Economic decline is the most straightforward concern. With a relatively low foreign debt, Colombia is better cushioned than its neighbors, but the global economic crisis has still dealt the country a blow. Demand for its exports, especially manufactured goods to the United States, has plummeted. Prices of commodities, particularly Colombia's oil, coal, and minerals, have fallen. The country's urban unemployment rate has returned to double digits after a few years of prosperity, with an additional 30 percent of the workforce underemployed and toiling in the informal sector.

Just as the economy has begun to sputter, the security situation -- Uribe's strongest suit - also seems to have stopped improving. The FARC, under new command since March 2008, appear to be regrouping in rural areas. The group's founding leader, Manuel Marulanda, died of natural causes in late March 2008, and was replaced by Alfonso Cano, a former professor who joined the FARC in 1968. Since then, with the exception of the July 2008 hostage rescue and a battlefield victory south of Bogotá in March 2008, the military hasn't dealt any further blows to the guerrillas' leadership. FARC's ambushes, attacks, and operations aimed at local government leaders are becoming more frequent.

Murder rates have increased since 2008 in all of Colombia's major cities, especially Medellín. Here, the it's not the now mostly-rural FARC that is to blame, but drug gangs. What's happening is a sort of turf war to gain territory opened up when 15 of the top paramilitary leaders involved in trafficking were extradited to the United States in the first half of May 2008. "New" paramilitary groups, most of them more accurately described as the armed wings of drug-trafficking organizations, are sprouting up and growing quickly to fill the vacuum.

Drug production, meanwhile, continues to be robust, despite a June 2009 U.N. report that detected an 18 percent reduction in coca cultivation between 2007 and 2008. In fact, the "reduction" is a mere return to the levels of 2003 to 2006, after a surprisingly high year in 2007.

Colombia's editorial pages now speculate that the president's military-heavy security policies may have reached their limit. This development would be less damaging if not for the scandals that have scraped (though not yet deeply wounded) the president, some of them carrying serious human rights implications. Over a third of the members of Congress Colombia elected in March 2006 are now under investigation, on trial, or behind bars for alleged ties to the paramilitary death squads; most are members of pro-government parties.

Meanwhile, Colombians have been shocked by revelations that members of the armed forces, prodded by a president pushing for results, may have killed well over a thousand innocent civilians in the past few years, passing many off as armed-group members killed in combat. Yet another unpleasant surprise came in February 2009, when the presidential intelligence service was found to have been carrying out wiretaps and surveillance against dozens of prominent Colombians: Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders.

Uribe has been most deeply affected, however, by more venal scandals. Two members of Congress were convicted of bribe-taking in 2008, making it apparent that Uribe was able to pass a 2006 amendment to the constitution, allowing him to be reelected for a second term, only because a handful of undecided legislators were promised big favors. Then, in late 2008, a series of pyramid schemes collapsed, wiping out tens of thousands of Colombians' savings. Press reports soon revealed that one of the largest such schemes had underwritten much of the mid-2008 petition drive to change the constitution once more -- so that Uribe could run again in 2010.

The president has chosen to go on the offensive against many of these accusations, constantly seeking to minimize them as the work of "bad apples," and even to claim publicly that accusers and investigators are doing the work of terrorists. This has done little to reduce the intensity of questioning, especially in certain print media outlets.

All this is happening as Uribe considers whether to try and extend his presidency to 12 years. The president claims he has not yet made up his mind, though time is running out and his political surrogates are intensely lobbying the Congress to pass legislation that would set a constitutional referendum in place for late this year.

Polls indicate that most Colombians would support giving Uribe at least the right to run again -- 84 percent in the May Gallup survey. Yet fewer would vote for him, and a second reelection is not assured: Concerns are growing about democratic checks and balances and the prospect of an increasingly personality-driven government led by a man unable to loosen his grip on power.

Prominent members of Colombia's establishment, including some who served as top ministers during Uribe's first term, have come out against his reelection. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a public appearance with a visiting Uribe on June 29, noted that "our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us." In Washington -- where no Colombia-watcher, right, left or center, has gone on record supporting Uribe's reelection -- it is generally acknowledged that a third-term bid will render nearly impossible the already difficult task of convincing Congress to ratify a controversial free trade accord.

Colombia's legislature will consider a bill this month that would nail down a date for a referendum on reelection. No matter what the result, the country is in for a very tumultuous political season. One year after the miraculous rescue in Colombia's jungles, economic woes, security concerns, and scandals are digging in to what was already a hotly contested 2010 election campaign. Down from the high-water mark, Uribe is back in the rapids.

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