August 8, 2009


Pakistani officials exhale in relief that they landed a big fish. US newspapers burst with pride over the death of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. White House officials blow hot and cold, cautioning that Mehsud was just one man while proclaiming a victory for President Obama and, more subtly, George Bush’s ongoing drone strikes.

Short term advantages could present themselves in the FATA, but there is reason to believe America may have done the Taliban a favor.

Mehsud’s death, if he is in fact dead, is unlikely to cause major disruptions in the Taliban network. The Afghan side will keep running strong as demonstrated by a bloody summer. Taliban chief Mullah Omar, who opposed Mehsud’s unfocused attacks in Pakistan, may be the secret winner. And to those who say Mehsud’s charismatic personality is hard to replace, many said the same thing about Tehrik-i-Taliban’s previous leader, Nek Muhammad.

Nek Muhammad joined the Taliban at 18 and worked throughout the 1990’s as a Waziristan point man, gaining weapons training and contacts like Osama bin Laden and current Taliban commander Mullah Nazir. Tehrik-i-Taliban began coalescing under him around 2002 and soon sparked the ongoing war in Waziristan. Muhammad hated America and openly declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, but the Pakistani government signed a peace deal with him in 2004.

Muhammad was killed several months later by a Predator drone. Mehsud assumed his position as head of Tehrik-i-Taliban and vowed to continue his work. Something similar has happened already.

Rumors of a Tehrik-i-Taliban power struggle are exaggerated. A shura was immediately held after Mehsud’s burial and reportedly chose Hakimullah Mehsud,one of Baitullah’s deputies, as his successor. The sword wouldn’t fall far anyway; Mehsud’s relatives Waliur Rehman and Azmatullah Mehsud were mentioned as alternate replacements along with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Qari Hussain, and Faqir Mohammad. Hakimullah is likely a placeholder anyway. Behind him lie hundreds of wannabe Taliban commanders.

Power struggles are little help to America and Pakistan. Baitullah’s main competition was with Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, who opposed Baitullah’s harsh methods against Pakistan. Baitullah had Zainuddin killed by his own bodyguard, and his death was used as evidence of fissures in the Taliban leadership. At Zainuddin’s funeral, his brother Misabhuddin assumed control of his “Abdullah Mehsud group” and welcomed the Pakistani government’s operations against Baitullah.

He also stated, “Jihad against America and its allies in Afghanistan would continue.”

Beyond whether Mehsud’s death has any lasting impact, his opposition is an illusion. Mehsud was considered too violent by more moderate Taliban commanders, but his enemies are every bit as anti-American. Lashkars who fight against the Taliban are often anti-American. Despite potential short term vulnerabilities, Tehrik-i-Taliban will quickly regroup and remains merely a part of the Taliban umbrella.

There is another debate, for later, over whether Mehsud would fake his death. After all, why would he be on top of a building in plain view of Predators, as Pakistani officials claimed? He could have planned to chatter about his death on purpose. America has a sophisticated propaganda network in Pakistan, but this is too hypothetical for the moment.

The real question is what America and Pakistan would do about Mehsud’s temporary void. Pakistan has pulled back its Waziristan operations, content to hold a containing formation while America hunted for Mehsud and his commanders. Now that he’s been taken out, will they move in for the kill?

American and Pakistani officials should be considering launching a total operation and they have good reason to. To sit on Mehsud’s death gives it no value, no purpose. Killing him and moving on is just killing, not counter-terrorism or counterinsurgency. No hospitals were laid, no political progress made. Mehsud’s death must be given value by acting on it with lightning speed, for the advantage will be brief.

Tehrik-i-Taliban has a good possibility of transitioning smoothly. If Waziristan was invaded today, it could likely put up the same resistance under Hakimullah’s command. He isn’t alone in his duties, as many Taliban commanders are likely helping him in the interim. Thus the American and Pakistani militaries must skirmish with the enemy to explore whether its organization has suffered.

If a noticeable difference is detected, either on the battlefield or with intelligence intercepts, America and Pakistan must seriously consider launching an all out assault on Waziristan. America has already advocated this plan to Pakistan, who initially hesitated to open such a wide front. If the plan had any merit before, it has far more now. Waiting for Tehrik-i-Taliban to self-destruct is a dream. It won’t be disorganized for long.

Escalating the war would provoke political ramifications, but these too could be short term. If America and Pakistan actually succeeded in crippling Tehrik-i-Taliban’s forces, initial negativity will dissipate. People will come to realize that now was the only opportunity. Failure to capitalize would be the real mistake and a backwards victory for the Taliban, who would appear invincible.

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