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.”