The death of Baitullah Mehsud, if true, is a good thing for all concerned, not least for the people of Waziristan. He was an oppressive thug and a terrorist with no redeeming social value. His death came, apparently, as the result of cooperation between local, on-the-ground spies and informants, Pakistan’s intelligence service, and the CIA, which operates the killer drones. It is, to me, an example of counterterrorism done right: precise targeting, little collateral damage, and high-value targets.
It does not mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, of course. Its effect on the war in Afghanistan will be minimal, since Mehsud was primarily operating within and against the state of Pakistan and its institutions, not in Afghanistan. But it gives Pakistan an opportunity to continue the military and political battle to re-take areas in FATA, the Swat Valley, and other districts that have fallen under Taliban control, whether it uses military means, diplomacy, or a combination of both. For months now, Pakistan has been tightening the noose on South Waziristan, threatening an invasion of the tribal area to clean out Mehsud’s forces, reportedly 10,000 strong, and the allied remnants of Al Qaeda there. It’s unclear now whether that attack will proceed, but at the very least the threat to Pakistan from Islamist extremists has been undercut and its leadership weakened. Various intelligence analysts have been quoted to the effect that the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership will be divided, confused, and no doubt wondering who betrayed them. Says Pakistan’s interior minister: “His loss means there will be confusion and total demoralization within their ranks. This is a window of opportunity that Pakistan has to take advantage of.”
Blowing up Mehsud doesn’t contradict the policy of negotiating and deal-making with Taliban officials. (Indeed, if I were Mullah Omar, hiding in Quetta, Pakistan, I’d be thinking a lot more seriously about a deal with President Karzai right now.) Masood Sharif Khattak, a former top Pakistani intelligence official, suggested that the killing of Mehsud might provide a window for persuading leaders of the group to talk, telling the Los Angeles Times:
“It’s an opportunity for the state of Pakistan to wrest the initiative from the Taliban. There must be a lot of people wanting to get out of all this. This is an opportunity to work on that, to give those people who want to give up that chance to do so.”
Most analysts point out that the Pakistani Taliban can regenerate leaders, including other members of the Mehsud tribe, and that its thousands of fighters won’t go away. But his death occurs in a violent, less-than-democratic culture where status and prestige aren’t so easily accumulated, and so it won’t be simple for the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to produce another overall leader who can command the loyalty of tribes, sub-tribes, clans, Al Qaeda-like Arab and Chechen thugs, and others. As Reuters reports:
Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007 and his fighters have staged a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces in Afghanistan.
“The loss of his leadership skills and experience would be significant,” the U.S. counterterrorism official said.
“It wouldn’t mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, but it would be a true setback for them — especially in the near term,” he said.
“There are Mahsud subordinates, people like Hakimullah Mahsud, who could succeed him,” said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. “As a rule, these commanders are harsh characters who have supervised suicide operations, kidnappings and other crimes.
“The real challenge for any of them would be to hold together the network of tribal groups that Baitullah Mahsud assembled,” the official said. “It’s not monolithic. There are serious personal and economic rivalries.”
None of the candidates are likely to attain the stature that Mahsud had any time soon, experts said. And the process of selecting a new leader could exacerbate those rivalries, they said.
“As they begin choosing another leader, there will be factions forming that would definitely impact the Taliban’s ability to continue fighting,” said Sherpao, the former interior minister. “This is the time to win over tribal groups and people who were with Mahsud.”
The Christian Science Monitor points out that the death of Mehsud followed internal strife within the Pakistani Taliban itself, making me wonder whether some insiders angry at Mehsud tipped off ISI about the leader’s whereabouts:
The probable killing of a top Taliban leader in Pakistan may open up a power struggle within the fractious insurgency that Islamabad could use to divide and conquer.
Baitullah Mehsud unified more than a dozen militant factions two years ago, putting them under his umbrella as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But as recently as late June, Mr. Mehsud faced a serious revolt within his own Mehsud tribe – one he put down by assassinating its leader.
The New York Times backgrounder on Mehsud provides some important insights into where he came from, making it clear that he was a long-time, minor cog in the Taliban movement in Afghanistan until 2001, when the US invasion forced him to retreat to Pakistan (along with Al Qaeda) and set up shop in Waziristan. I’d urge you to read the whole piece, but here’s a salient excerpt:
Mr. Mehsud was once a minor figure in the small Shabi Khel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, an inhospitable mountainous territory that fiercely resisted efforts by the armies of the British empire to conquer it. The son of a prayer leader, he had a basic religious education where he grew up in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan. It was probably there that he was first recruited to fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban during their period in government in the late 1990s.
He served with the Taliban at the Kabul airport, according to a senior Afghan security official. After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, he returned to his native Waziristan, accompanied by thousands of Afghan Taliban and hundreds of foreign Qaeda fighters who settled in North and South Waziristan.
As the Pakistani Army began operations in Waziristan in 2004, Mr. Mehsud was promoted by the Taliban leadership to command the fighters from the Mehsud tribe. … He quickly expanded his forces and power, and by December 2007 he had been named the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the umbrella movement that commands most of the Taliban groups throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas and the adjoining Swat Valley.
It’s important to remember that this is complicated stuff. Mehsud was responsible, it seems, for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto upon her return to Pakistan, and at the same time he had engaged in peace talks and deals with the government of Pakistan. He may have had covert lines out to Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s chief rival in Pakistani civilian politics, and he certainly had long-time connections to ISI itself, which created the Taliban in the early 1990s when Mehsud was a teenager. The links between the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are murky at best, and the same goes for the nature of the alliance between the two Talibans and Al Qaeda, or what’s left of it. In the end, this has more to do with politics in Pakistan than the war inside Afghanistan, but it’s loo late to separate those two conflicts now: they’ve merged into one.