Dispatch

What the Death of Pakistan's Public Enemy No. 1 Means

If Baitullah Mehsud is really dead, it's great news for Pakistan and the United States, and bad news for the militants.

A Hellfire missile, fired from a CIA-operated drone an hour past midnight Wednesday, Pakistan time, tore Baitullah Mehsud's body into two pieces. He was said to be on a glucose drip -- dispensed by a local paramedic named Saeedullah -- on the rooftop of his in-laws' house in Zangara, South Waziristan, when hell rained down and took several lives, including that of Mehsud and his second wife.

If this eyewitness account -- narrated on the phone by an intelligence operative to journalists based in Peshawar, the provincial capital, were true, then the icon of al Qaeda militants -- ready to kill and die for their cause -- is gone. Back in its December 2007 annual issue, the Time magazine had listed Baitullah Mehsud among "its 100 most influential individuals" around the globe. By then, Mehsud had already declared jihad on the West.

"Our main aim is to finish Britain and the United States and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims. We pray to God to give us the ability to destroy the White House, New York, and London. Very soon, we will be witnessing jihad's miracles," the diminutive militant told the Doha-based Al Jazeera satellite channel in January 2008.

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The radical maverick had carried a $5 million bounty after the U.S. State Department described him as a clear threat to American interests in the region. He stunned many in and outside the country on March 31, 2009, when he owned up to a commando raid and the ensuing bloody siege of a police training academy a day earlier on the outskirts of the eastern city of Lahore. The roughly eight-hour long operation resulted in the deaths of eight policemen and four attackers. Four were arrested.

"We did it as a retaliation for U.S. missile strikes off drones inside the Pakistani territory," said Mehsud, the first such admission he had made personally.

Like most other militants and several Pakistani opposition leaders, Baitullah also bitterly opposed the drone attacks, but finally, he too, fell to Hellfire missiles fired from a pilotless "Reaper" drone. According to local sources, Saeedullah, the paramedic, was a close relative of Mehsud's father-in-law Ikramuddin who had been called in after the diminutive commander complained of weakness resulting from diarrhea and dehydration.

Early in January 2008, Pakistan's security officials and the CIA had also named Mehsud as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He harbored foreign fighters, particularly those al Qaeda Central Asians who had fled from the Wana Valley following a commando operation by the local pro-government militant Mullah Nazir. Baitullah also shot into international headlines for his suicide bomber training camps, led by his deputy Qari Hussein and located mostly in and around the Shawaal area between North and South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban consider suicide attacks to be "a viable form of self-defense."

All this had turned him into Pakistan's most notorious militant commander, somebody accused of playing into the hands of foreign powers, including the United States and India, to destabilize Pakistan.

The stocky Baitullah, 36, was barely 5.2 feet tall with a less-than-swashbuckling appearance. But he radiated a certain charisma that appealed to people much taller and stronger in physique. Born into a poor ethnic Pashtoon family in the Makeen village of South Waziristan, Mehsud also participated in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and later assisted the Afghan Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance. During his years of fighting in Afghanistan, he drew inspiration from Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban chief, and of course the likes of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mehsud embraced their vision of an Islamic state, based on sharia (as they interpret it).

In September 2008, Mehsud, a known diabetic, married for the second time after the first marriage did not produce any children. Waziristani journalists and supporters also referred to him as the "governor" of the region because of his influence over the Mehsud tribe's areas of the rugged and inhospitable terrain.

Baitullah Mehsud had formed his lethal Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007 when several tribal commanders became willing to operate under his leadership.

While his supporters believed Baitullah had brought peace to the Waziristan region, his detractors argued that any such peace came at a high price. Like a mafia boss, they say, Mehsud and his lieutenants shook down the populace for protection money. Being Pakistan's most influential Taliban leader, Baitullah had trained and lined up a new cadre of diehard commanders, ready to take on Pakistani security forces in case of any major offensive.

Before Baitullah's death, the TTP comprised about 40 militant commanders with a collective strength of about 25,000 and was considered to be the most lethal of the Taliban outfits in Pakistan's wily regions bordering Afghanistan.

In May 2007, the group caused great embarrassment to the Pakistani Army when it ambushed and took at least 250 officers and soldiers hostage before releasing them in late August after arduous talks, and most probably payment of heavy ransom.

In July 2009, Mehsud's men again caused great embarrassment to Pakistani security forces when they sniped at a military convoy, killing about a dozen soldiers, including two officers. Pakistani security forces, the police and the paramilitary, had remained TTP's special targets; since 2006, Mehsud and allies have killed close to 3,000 policemen and paramilitary security personnel, including during a commando raid on the police academy in Lahore in March 2009.

Baitullah Mehsud's abrupt disappearance from the scene has shocked his followers. Although no panic is likely to ensue after his exit from the militant scene, the psychological impact on the rank and file of the TTP is likely enormous.

Until recently, most analysts following the al Qaeda inspired militancy in the region had agreed that radical outfits like that of Mehsud appeared increasingly united and much better networked than ever before, and thus posed a bigger threat to the region and the world.

That is why, analysts opined, Mehsud's death could dent the "unity of command" that had existed under his leadership. All those groups that had surrendered their regional identities and merged into the central TTP command structure might splinter again if the race to succeed Mehsud grows contentious.

And even if that succession battle proceeds smoothly, the message the lethal drone attack has sent across the ranks of the militants is loud and clear: No group or person challenging the writ of one or many states will go unpunished.

Until now, the Pakistani Army establishment had accused the United States of sparing Baitullah Mehsud by design. Defense and intelligence officials claimed that since Mehsud was inflicting damage on the Pakistani security apparatus, the Americans were refraining from a conclusive action against the warlord. The United States was accusing Pakistan of using him as a bogeyman, or so read the argument. In this way, Baitullah Meshud remained a source of friction and distrust between the American and Pakistani security establishments.

Now, hopefully, the drone attack and its consequences will most probably wipe out that distrust, remove the mutual friction and pave the way for closer U.S.-Pakistani coordination and cooperation in the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

Whether that would mean taking on Afghan militants such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and Mullah Omar and their close associates -- all the elements that are inflicting damage on the U.S.-NATO-Afghan forces -- is an altogether different issue.

What is certain for now is that with the symbol of terror Baitullah Mehsud gone, also gone is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's unity of command. That, in turn is going to shake up the central command structure and make the group vulnerable to pressure on both sides of the Durand Line.

AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Pants Pants Revolution

Sudanese courts might give Lubna Hussein 40 lashes for the crime of wearing pants. But they also might start a grassroots backlash on the world stage. 

Khartoum -- To the media she is the "Sudan trouser woman." Images of Lubna Hussein wearing the outfit that led to her arrest in Khartoum last month have zipped around the world. News reports give the impression that she is a radical on a crusade, her trial a fight over women's rights in an Islamic capital city. But this impression fails to scratch the surface. What is at stake is no less than a burgeoning social movement that promises to test the authoritarian Sudanese government on a global stage.

Hussein is one of thousands of women arrested each year for one of the "public order" offenses listed in Sudan's criminal code. Article 152, the one relevant to Hussein's case, reads: "Whoever commits an indecent act or an act that breaches public morality or wears clothes that are indecent or would breach public morality which causes annoyance to public feelings is liable to forty lashes or fine or both punishments."

The laws are officially meant to keep the public safe. But in practice, public order police use the vaguely worded regulations to extract bribes from women on the street, while public order justices deliver immediate punishment for infractions, devoid of due process. This means that public order laws are the subject of suppressed but persistent debate inside Sudan.

The current regime, led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, enacted the sharia-based provisions upon seizing power in a military coup in 1989. But the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended two decades of bloody civil war between the government and southern Sudan, mandated a "democratic transformation." The Interim Constitution, which takes the country through a set transition period, includes a bill of rights meant to respect the "freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties" -- which includes equality between the sexes and due process, two things disrespected in cases like Hussein's.

A disparate group of activists -- including non-governmental organizations, opposition political parties, and media outlets -- have been trying to use the Interim Constitution to argue for the easing of the public order provisions. "The government's statistics tell us that last year 43,000 people were arrested for crimes against the public order," explained Sudanese human right activist Nahid Gabralla. "I consider every one of those people to be victims."

But activists have made no headway in changing the laws or the institutions that enforce them. Nor have they garnered the attention of the public officials who could make the necessary reforms. What has started to change, with Hussein's arrest, is the opposition itself. The incident has spurred diffuse activists into coordinating and bolstered their efforts. And Hussein herself has played an integral part, by refusing to duck a trial and then drawing attention to her case -- a startling move for a woman in this conservative society.

As a staffer at the U.N. Mission in Sudan's media department, Hussein could have invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid flogging for the "crime" of wearing trousers. Instead, she waived her immunity and decided to challenge the law head-on. Hussein says she hoped to shed light on those flogged under unjust laws -- especially because most women and girls who are thus punished do everything they can to keep their ordeal from the rest of the world. 

Speaking with me the day before her trial, she explained her decision to go public. "The trouble is that usually people don't hear about this law. If you tell people you have been flogged for wearing trousers, they won't believe you. This way, there will be witnesses." 

After waiving immunity, Hussein says she considered using her skill in journalism to write an article on her case, highlighting the absurdity of the law. But Sudan censors its press. Anything she wrote would never have seen the light of day. Hussein enlisted the support of legal reform advocates instead, writing personal invitations asking them to attend her trial. She then reached out to the international media to give the case a global profile. 

The grassroots movement coalesced and grasped the opportunity. On Tuesday, more than 100 women appeared at the North Khartoum District Courthouse with hand-written signs reading "No more women's rights violations!" and "Kill me, but don't suppress me!" Gabralla, the human rights activist, stood proudly in the front row, facing scores of the much-feared policemen carrying batons and AK47s, with riot gear at the ready. 

Inside the courtroom, the judge postponed the trial for a month, saying he wanted time to clarify Hussein's immunity status. It would have been hard to imagine, given the global spotlight on this case, there being any other outcome from the hearing. Hussein and her acolytes have forced the Sudanese government to decide whether it wishes to flog a practicing Muslim widow in full view of the world. 

At this time, Sudan is attempting to prove its bona fides to a U.S. administration. Recently, U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gration indicated the United States may be willing to normalize relations, suggesting that Sudan should be removed from the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Although the Sudanese government wishes to appease the Americans, it also does not want to let the protestors have their way. Hussein knew these dynamics well when she took the step of challenging the law.

The Sudanese government has turned the tactic of delay into an art form -- hoping that in a month's time, the outrage over Hussein's case will have blown over.  It is a hope resting on a shaky foundation. The international media spotlight may be fickle -- "trousergate" can only run for so long.

But the regime in Khartoum will not be able to stamp out the hundreds of women intent on protesting Hussein's trial. In a country where the omnipresence of the dreaded security services has led the population to self-censor, Hussein's act of defiance shows the possibility of a different path.

As Hussein puts it, "This is not about trousers."

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