On Friday, news agencies released “unconfirmed” reports that Tehreek-e-Taliban head, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in South Waziristan early Wednesday. As the day went on, officials released a stream of ambiguous and vague statements. Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quoted saying, “We suspect he was killed in the missile strike…We have some information, but we don’t have material evidence to confirm it.” A senior U.S. official told ABC News, meanwhile, that there was “a 95 percent chance that Mehsud was among those killed in the missile strike.”
Although a Taliban commander and aide later told the Associated Press by phone that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife had been killed in the drone strike [intelligence sources also confirmed this fact, saying his body had already been buried], Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters that authorities would travel to the site of the death in order to “to be 100 percent sure.” CNN‘s correspondent further noted that Pakistani officials will also conduct a DNA test in order to fully verify this development.
Why the caution? In June, Baitullah Mehsud was reportedly almost killed after he attended a funeral in Waziristan, and a similar report also circulated last September. However, the fact that Mehsud “has shown up alive after previous near-misses,” ultimately undermines Pakistan’s credibility. Therefore, despite officials being nearly 100%, both Pakistani and U.S. officials aren’t taking any chances.
In the aftermath of what is still considered an alleged death, it is important to consider two things: First, who was this shadowy figure, aside from being the leader of the Pakistani Taliban? Secondly, how will his death impact the Taliban and the military’s offensive?
Who Was Baitullah Mehsud?
- The Taliban leader was in his mid-late 30s and hailed from the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan.
- He was known to suffer from diabetes, an illness that led sources to wrongly claim he died of kidney failure in September.
- The UK Telegraph described him as “physically unimposing,” while the BBC‘s Syed Shoaib Hasan said when he went to interview him in May 2008, “he found himself sitting down before a short, plump, bearded man, reluctant to allow his picture to be taken.”
- Based in South Waziristan, Mehsud proclaimed himself the leader of the TTP in 2007, an umbrella organization that was allied with with North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar and South Waziristan leader Mullah Nazir to form the Council of United Mujahideen, a group that had pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and the overall Taliban commander, Mullah Omar.
- The Telegraph noted, “Mehsud became Public Enemy Number One after launching suicide attacks in 2007 against the army and politicians after commandos stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque.”
The Impact of Mehsud’s Death
Most officials in U.S. and Pakistan seemed unanimous in saying that Mehsud’s death would be both a tactical and strategic victory against the Pakistani Taliban. Baitullah was adept at connecting various militant groups and organizations, often transcending tribes, borders, and regions to form alliances. Many therefore believe his death will lead to a power struggle, ultimately leading to cracks in the organization. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Roshtam Shah Mohmand, a former NWFP chief secretary, who asserted, “I don’t think the TTP movement would remain intact [without Mehsud]…I think no other leader would have the same charisma, appeal, popularity, and stature.”
However, Juan Cole, author of the Informed Comment, provided a different argument:
Some analysts believe in the centrality of leadership cadres in insurgencies. But I’d just point out that the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq in May of 2006 had no effect whatsoever on fundamentalist guerrilla attacks in that country….Groups like Hamas and the Taliban have a complicated relationship to clans and cliques that easily survive the assassination of even an important leader.
My own assessment tows the line somewhere between Cole’s and the official statements. The TTP and its allies formed a highly decentralized power structure. Given this fact, it is likely that Mehsud’s death will only have a marginal real impact on the organization, particularly since militants are reportedly already meeting to decide on a successor (candidates include his deputy Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain Mehsud [the commander known to recruit children into the Taliban], North Waziristan leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and Bajaur Taliban sub-commander Waliur Rahman). It would be naive to suggest that Mehsud’s death came as a surprise to the Pakistani Taliban – he was, after all, on the top of both the U.S. and Pakistan’s Most Wanted lists. And, noted the BBC, “the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan still remains the major arbiter in settling questions of succession among the Pakistani militant groups.”
At the same time, Mehsud’s death, if confirmed, still represents a pretty hefty symbolic victory for Pakistan. In a war of perceptions, such a fact is significant. Much of the Pakistani military’s tactical success going into South Waziristan remained contingent on taking out high-level targets like Mehsud. Officials must therefore frame his death to show the increasing weakness of the TTP, and the military’s comparative strength, thereby turning a tactical victory into a potential strategic success. However, the Pakistan government also needs to step up and provide services within this vacuum. As Cole noted, “Something like 80% of the time, the only way to defeat an insurgency is to find a political formula acceptable to it…Where it is defeated, isolating it from its recruiting pool is important.”
What are your own thoughts – will Baitullah Mehsud’s death have a major impact on Pakistan’s war on the Taliban, or only a marginal effect?