This past Friday, news agencies released unconfirmed reports that Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. air strike in South Waziristan. Come Monday, and the situation is as ambiguous and vague than when the story first developed. Although US National Security Adviser Jim Jones put the level of U.S. certainty that Baitullah Mehsud had been killed in the 90% category over the weekend and Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Monday that two sources confirmed the death of the TTP chief, Taliban militants close to Mehsud continue to deny his death. According to BBC News, his aide, Maulan Nur Syed said Baitullah Mehsud is “gravely ill,” but he “had not been at the house that was attacked by the U.S. missile.”
On Saturday, further confusion developed when reports surfaced that Baitullah’s deputy Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman were killed in a dispute over who would succeed the Taliban leader. The situation was further compounded when Hakimullah spoke to news agencies today, saying that both he and Baitullah were alive. He told the AFP, “Rehman Malik is propagating false information in the media – using the media as toy. I am alive and prove I’m alive despite government claims that there was a shootout for Baitullah’s succession.” He added, “Let the interior minister prove he is dead. If the interior minister fails to prove Baitullah Mehsud’s death, then I will produce evidence that he is alive.” The government, meanwhile, insists they will prove Baitullah Mehsud’s death by “using DNA evidence.“
Amid this cloud of ambiguity lies two choice questions:
1. How does the government propose to obtain this DNA evidence? Rehman Malik told BBC’s Urdu service that Pakistani authorities already had the DNA from Mehsud’s brother, who was killed a few months ago, adding the test “could be conducted without exhuming the body.” Now, I’m no forensics expert, but apparently this is pretty difficult to do. If a DNA analysis/match was conducted without exhuming the corpse, authorities would need some of Baitullah’s personal items (toothbrush, comb, etc.) in order to make a conclusive assessment. Given the rough terrain in South Waziristan and that it’s now swarming with angry Taliban/kinsman, any kind of access there seems unlikely. Therefore, a conclusive DNA test may be nearly impossible to achieve unless Mehsud’s corpse magically appears on the ministry’s doorstep.
2. What has this ‘he said she said’ [or, more accurately, he said, he said] situation taught us?
Ultimately, the series of “he’s dead, oh no wait…just kidding” reports undermine the government and its ability to communicate the truth to the media and Pakistani citizens. Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal noted the Pakistani government falsely reported on the deaths of 10 Al Qaeda leaders and eight senior Taliban leaders since 2006. He added, “The Taliban, on the other hand, have been honest about the deaths of their senior leaders. Each time they have refuted a claim of a leader being killed, they have been able to prove the commander is alive.” Groups often release eulogy statements through their communications structure, framing the dead as martyrs in order to incite revenge killings and recruit more fighters.
The death of Baitullah would be a large loss for the Taliban, though. Looking at the situation from the other angle – if he is dead and the shoot-out did occur, the power struggle that many analysts predicted [see my last post] could very well be underway, which could further crumble the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s fragile command. According to Imtiaz Gul in Foreign Policy, “And even if that succession battle proceeds smoothly, the message the lethal drone attack has sent across the ranks of the militants is loud and clear: No group or person challenging the writ of one or many states will go unpunished.”
Baitullah’s alleged death and surrounding ambiguity makes me highly skeptical of any scenario, no matter how conclusive. But here’s some advice – stop allowing government officials to release conclusions saying how “inconclusive” things are – it just adds to the headache.