As Pakistan's military wraps up its offensive against the Taliban in Swat Valley, it's turning attention to the tribal area of South Waziristan – and homing in on Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who is based there.
Several Pakistani security analysts say that killing or capturing the young, secretive man – who is becoming an iconic figure for his role in major terror attacks in Pakistan since 2004 – could deal a severe blow to the aspirations of militants throughout the country.
"He is the center of gravity in the war on terror.... If you could take out the leadership, it would be a great force multiplier for Pakistan," says Mahmood Shah, a security analyst and former security chief of Pakistan's tribal areas.
In addition to the number of attacks Mr. Mehsud has been accused of masterminding, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, he holds nearly legendary status among militants, says Ismail Khan, Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn, a leading English-language daily. "For another individual to [step in and] gain that stature would take four to five years," he says.
At the same time, experts caution that despite Mehsud's significant stature, the government cannot simply eliminate Mehsud to cripple the Taliban. It would have to kill or capture the entire Pakistani Taliban leadership, says Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
Since the military confirmed last Tuesday that it would launch an offensive into South Waziristan – one of seven tribal areas bordering Afghanistan – it has deployed troops to strategic positions and bombed and shelled suspected militant targets. Air Force jets have attacked the town of Makeen – known widely to be a hideout of the Taliban leader.
Mysterious figure, ruthless operator
Mehsud was formally chosen to lead the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella organization created by 40 regional militant chiefs, at its inception in December 2007. The position made him titular commander of some 20,000 fighters, many of them part of his Mehsud clan, which is based in South Waziristan.
His appointment marked the culmination of three years of fierce fighting with security forces, during which Mehsud established himself as a master of guerrilla warfare and a brave and ruthless operator, instilling fear in his enemies through mass beheadings. He is also a veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
In August 2007, following the collapse of a two-year peace deal with the government, Mehsud's militias captured 200 soldiers, who were later released in exchange for 25 militants.
Since becoming the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mehsud has claimed responsibility for dozens of high-profile terrorist attacks throughout the country. In March the US placed a $5 million bounty on his head.
Mehsud's refusal to be photographed and his rare public pronouncements have given him an aura of mystery. Getting to Mehsud is a tough proposition: He has been protected by his legion of followers, his firm command over his mountainous stronghold, as well his famously fierce secrecy.
Mehsud rival could pose bigger threat than military
The advent of a serious rival from within his own clan, however, may hold the key to his downfall – even more so than the impending military threat, says Ismail Khan, the bureau chief of Peshawar, a northwestern city, for Dawn.
"You need a Mehsud to catch a Mehsud," says Mr. Khan, to split the loyalty of the tribe and fight in the local terrain better than the military can.
Qari Zainuddin, a young man also based in South Waziristan, now claims to be the rightful heir of Abdullah Mehsud, a one-legged former detainee at the US's Guantánamo prison camp who led the Mehsud tribe till his death in 2006.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Zainuddin told Geo TV that differences of opinion had led to a rift between himself and Mehsud. Islam does not permit attacks inside Pakistan, and religion cannot be spread by force, he said.
Zainuddin has teamed up with Turkistan Bhittani, a leader of the Bhittani clan, also of South Waziristan, and the duo are leading an effort to block the movement of Mehsud's men in the neighboring districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.
Still, it would be a mistake for the government to place all of its faith in Mehsud's rivals, says Mr. Shah, the former security chief. "They might give you promises, but they should be taken with a pinch of salt."
Khan says that forcing Mehsud to leave his present stronghold in South Waziristan could be enough to weaken him.
"If he is evicted or goes across to [other] tribal areas he would not be the Baitullah we know," Khan says. Under the Pashtun honor code that governs the tribal areas, he explains, Mehsud would effectively be a guest under a neighboring chief's protection. "That will be very damaging for his reputation" as well as his freedom to operate.