Imtiaz Ali’s profile of Baitullah Mehsud in Foreign Policy, “Commander of the Faithful,” raises an interesting question. In summarizing Mehsud’s deeds and accomplishments of the last few years, Ali writes
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 asamir(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.
There’s an ellided point of emphasis here that nods to what I always thought was Mehsud’s (if not the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s) principal vulnerability. First, he wasn’t just “named” head of the TeTP; there was a direct causal relationship between Mehsud’s murder of hundreds of tribal elders, and the ensuing leadership vacuum that enabled his subsequent leadership of the group. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan started as an umbrella of Pahstun tribal interests, with Mehsud voted in, post tribal putsch. This raises a further question as to how much it has (or parts of it have) since gelled around Mehsud, and to what extent it remains an extended alliance of convenience or expediency. There are fissures within the TeTP, as Ali writes, but he’s also pessimistic about Pakistani approaches to the problem: “the government has met little success,” he writes, “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.” I’m not so sure: the TeTP itself is made up of individuals and groups that rely on those very same mechanisms.