Qari Zainuddin (2nd from right), a young man in his mid-twenties leading his own militant group, has caused Baitullah Mehsud more anxiety than the military operation, said a Mehsud tribesman. - AP/File photo

PESHAWAR When jets of the Pakistan Air Force struck Makeen - a key trade centre of Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan - last week, ostensibly to avenge the suicide bombing in Lahore that killed religious scholar Dr Sarfaraz Naeemi, it was the culmination of a two-month long in-house debate within the military establishment on how to deal with Baitullah Mehsud.

It was, perhaps, the first significant indication that the military establishment - long derided for avoiding taking the chief of Pakistani Taliban head-on - had had enough.
 
'He has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan,' Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had said recently.

'We wanted to deliver a message to Baitullah. If he carries out a suicide bombing, then there will be a response and that he can't get away with these attacks. There will be a quid pro quo,' a senior military officer said.

To be sure, the government had the message delivered to the Taliban supreme personally through tribal intermediaries.

Battle lines have been drawn in South Waziristan. Although several new emerging factors may help the military action, the mother of all battles against Pakistani militants in South Waziristan, in all likelihood, will be tough and bloody.

The major factor, in this fast-changing scenario, is an anti-Baitullah Mehsud alliance between Turkistan - a 40-year-old veteran of the Afghan war, and Qari Zainuddin, a young lad in his mid-twenties leading a group once commanded by the late Abdullah Mehsud.

Many Mehsud tribesmen and government officials overseeing tribal affairs agree that more than any military operation, it is Qari Zainuddin who seems to have unruffled the seemingly invincible Baitullah Mehsud.

'The environment that made Baitulllah is no more,' a senior government official said. 'For the first time he has a challenger from within his Mehsud clan. Baitullah Mehsud is in trouble,' he added.

A Mehsud tribesman concurred. 'Baitullah told a jirga member recently he was not too much worried about military action against him.' It's Zainuddin who has caused him anxiety, the Mehsud tribesman said.

Like Baitullah, Zainuddin is a native Mehsud and has been leading his own militant group once led by Abdullah Mehsud - a one-legged fiery fighter and former Guantanamo detainee, who was killed in a commando action in Zhob, Balochistan, in July 2006.

Zainuddin and Abdullah's other comrades blamed Baitullah for orchestrating the death. And they had their reasons.

Long before Baitullah burst on to the scene, Abdullah was the undisputed leader of Mehsud tribal militants. All that changed with the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers in Oct 2004 that ended days later with the death of one of the hostages.

Power play

Baitullah was not amused. Thus began a systematic push to dethrone Abdullah and cut him down to size. A formula brokered by the Taliban from Afghanistan meant Abdullah's position was further weakened.

Soon he would have to leave his native Waziristan to fight in Afghanistan, leaving his fighters to fend for themselves. Many of them didn't live long enough to fight.

Zainuddin and his small band of fighters took refuge in Shakai, in the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe territory of South Waziristan.

Turkistan, who had retired as a sepoy from South Waziristan Scouts of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in 1998 to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan, was once friends with Baitullah Mehsud. 'We fought together in Afghanistan,' he once said.

The slaughter of some FC jawans and Baitullah's other actions, he added, made him leave the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief. 'Don't poke your nose in this,' he quoted Baitullah as telling him.

He has paid dearly for his desertion and has since lost 73 relatives in a war of attrition, including eight members of his family.

Revenge appears to be their sole motivation but this, government officials believe, would also prompt score others who have lost their near and dear ones in years of targeted killings. Sentiments are such that were Baitullah to be eliminated, no one would weep for him, the official said.

Already Turkistan, a Bhittani by tribe, and Zainuddin have made it difficult for Baitullah's men to operate freely in neighbouring Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts.

'The remaining few would be taken care of soon,' Turkistan boasts.

And the government is helping, if not directly, then by turning a blind eye to the duo's activities. During the past one month or so, Baitullah has lost more than thirty men in target killings in the twin districts.

This may have helped shape the 'environment', as one official put it. The government's recognition matters. In Feb 2007 the government had recognised Baitullah Mehsud as the Mehsud chieftain by signing a peace deal with him. Now it is backing a different horse and the Mehsuds appear willing to bet on it.

A jirga of Mehsud tribal elders at Qari Zainuddin's invitation met in Tank to deliver a message to that most feared man in Sourh Waziristan, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Another jirga has been planned for Wednesday.

This in itself has created a damn-if-you-do and damn-if-you-don't situation for these tribal chiefs, who are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Some of the influential figures who had been leading negotiations in the past have opted for 'medical treatment' in Islamabad.

The tribal dynamics and punitive action, government officials believe, should tilt the balance against the man who carries $ 5 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani on Sunday evening ordered military action - a constitutional requirement to authorise the use of force, but it was also a cue to his administration to go tough on the Mehsud tribe.

A notification has since been issued under the Frontier Crimes Regulation to authorise the arrest of Mehsud tribesmen and seizure of their properties.

Efforts are under way to neutralise Maulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the two top militant commanders from South and North Waziristan. The two had forged an alliance with Baitullah Mehsud last year.

They had pledged to stand by Baitullah in the event of any military action and there is no indication that they will renege on their word, although some Wazir tribesmen believe tribal pragmatism will take care of this.

Economic blockade

As a quid pro quo and reward to the Ahmadzai Wazirs, the government has opened the Gomal Zam Road that links Wana, South Waziristan's regional headquarters, with Tank district, bypassing Mehsud territory. The move ended Wazirs' dependence on supplies to the Ahmadzai Wazir heartland.

This, say some security analysts, will help the military impose an effective economic blockade on the Mehsud tribe.

'It's fairly easy. All that we need to do is to block the three main roads that go into Mehsud territory and you will have choked them up effectively,' a senior military officer said.

And this may well be the strategy. Perhaps military strategists hope that the Zainuddin-Bhittani partnership and a suffocating economic blockade would force Mehsud tribesmen to desert Baitullah in droves, making things easy for the army.

But, warn some analysts, that this is far easier said than done. Baitullah is no ordinary man. He is the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and enjoys the support of thousands of committed fighting men operating in one of the toughest terrains in the entire tribal region.

Having lost in Swat, Bajaur and Mohmand, militants are reported to be heading in that direction for one last stand.

Two previous military operations failed to cause a dent in Baitullah's ranks. On the contrary, it turned the militant commander into a mythical figure who has at his disposal an arsenal of, what a former Mehsud parliamentarian once described, walking, talking and breathing bombs - a weapon he has used with telling effect.

'It's like sitting in the front row and watching a horror movie,' a security official said. 'I get nightmares when I think of the potential destruction and bloodshed this man can cause,' said another official.

But the news is out already families living in Mehsud territory are making a beeline to Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and other nearby places. This is the third displacement from the region.

On the previous occasion the military launched what it called a three-star operation, but stopped short of achieving its objective. The Mehsuds are worldly wise. They will take their time, wait and see which side is winning before making their own bets.