So it’s official. On Tuesday, Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, two top Taliban commanders, finally confirmed the death of Baitullah Mehsud, thus laying the seemingly endless he said-(s)he said statements to rest. The Wall Street Journal cited “reporters who said they recognized the leaders’ voices,” noting Mehsud died of injuries inflicted from an earlier U.S. drone strike this past Sunday.
So what about Hakimullah’s past phone call to news agencies, claiming Baitullah was alive? Oh, that. According to him, he wasn’t technically lying. Baitullah Mehsud wasn’t dead after the purported U.S. drone strike - he was just in a coma. Hakimullah was quoted by media outlets saying, “He was wounded. He got the wounds in a drone strike and he was martyred two days ago.” Waliur Rehman conveniently echoed the same statement.
In all likelihood, Baitullah Mehsud probably died on August 5 in the U.S. drone strike, a story affirmed by another senior TTP commander who spoke to The News from an undisclosed location. However, the Taliban leadership may have been biding time until a new successor could be named. The aforementioned commander told The News, “We did not want to confirm his death earlier as it could have disheartened our people present everywhere in the country…The Taliban from Afghanistan played a key role in resolving differences among various TTP commanders. They continued their talks with the Mehsud Taliban Shura and then negotiated with each and every commander.”
According to the unnamed commander, Hakimullah Mehsud “had been unanimously made the TTP chief by its Shura, while Maulana Waliur Rehman was named leader of the Mehsud Taliban in South Waziristan.” The joint statement by Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman seemed therefore intended to demonstrate Taliban unity in the face of rumors suggesting otherwise. In fact, of the many unconfirmed reports that surfaced in the past few weeks, one story reported that Hakimullah and Waliur had killed each other in a shootout for Baitullah’s succession, an allegation Hakimullah himself lay to rest by speaking to reporters. On Tuesday, Waliur Rehman asserted, “Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences.”
So out with the old Mehsud, in with the new…Mehsud. As analysts and pundits spar over what all this means for the Taliban leadership and the military offensive, let’s take a moment to learn more about Mehsud V.2. Here’s what we know:
- His real name is Zulfiqar Mehsud. Hakimullah is his nom de guerre. Kind of like a stage name. Like Cher.
- According to the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan, he was born in the Kotkai region, near the town of Jandola in South Waziristan. His only schooling was at a small village madrassa in Hangu district, reportedly the same school Baitullah Mehsud dropped out from.
- At 28 years old, he was known as Baitullah’s most “ferocious” deputy, handling both a Kalashnikov and a Toyota pick-up with legendary skill. The BBC’s correspondent once took a drive with him and noted, “To demonstrate his skill with the vehicle, he drove like a man possessed, manoeuvring around razor sharp bends at impossible speeds. He finished the demonstration by braking inches short of a several hundred foot drop.” So if this new career doesn’t pan out, I hear Fast & the Furious IV [3-D] may need stunt drivers.
- His first press conference was held in November 2008 in Orakzai Agency, [he became Baitullah's chief spokesman in October 2007]. A GEO TV reporter described meeting him, “Hakimullah is a lively man. He told us he could give us two gifts. One was the Humvee military vehicle that his fighters had captured during a recent raid in Khyber Agency on an Afghanistan-bound supply convoy for Nato forces. The other was a jeep that his men had snatched from UN employees in Khyber Agency.” Charming.
- He was the militant commander for three tribal agencies – Khyber, Kurram, and Orakzai. He reportedly masterminded the campaign against NATO convoys in Khyber and Peshawar, and claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Peshawar Pearl-Continental Hotel.
Hakimullah may have come to power on the coattails of a Taliban power struggle, exposing rifts that should be further exploited by the Pakistani military, but he is not new to the Taliban structure, and he is certainly not unfamiliar with Baitullah’s agenda. Although his ability to command the TTP could be moot if the organization has been permanently damaged, we should not take this appointment lightly.