Earlier this summer, the Taliban released a DVD that suggested Baitullah Mehsud was losing his mojo. Unlike other propaganda videos, which show Taliban cadres conducting real ambushes in Afghanistan or firing rockets in the heavily forested hills along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, this one made me think that the Bad News Bears had landed in South Waziristan. A couple dozen guys jogged in circles, ran through some military drills, and fired their Kalashnikovs into the dirt, before forming a circle and dancing a traditional Pashtun jig.
A few weeks after this pitiful DVD was made available, a CIA-controlled Predator drone demolished the “training camp.” Then Mehsud’s information center was targeted and destroyed. In fact, since Barack Obama took office in January, American drones have attacked Mehsud’s territory 15 times. Early on Wednesday morning, while Mehsud was receiving medical treatment for a failing kidney at his father-in-law’s home, yet another missile struck, this time killing Mehsud’s father-in-law, his wife, and, as top Taliban deputies confirmed Friday, Baitullah Mehsud himself.
Mehsud’s rise—and his ability to draw the attention and resources of the CIA—was meteoric by terrorist standards. Osama Bin Laden had to bomb the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania before he warranted a barrage of cruise missiles. And while Mehsud had threatened the United States, he hadn’t yet proved his ability to match bluster with action. What he had done, however, was to organize attacks against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and oversee a string of bombings in Pakistan, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, according to U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Mehsud splashed onto the scene in the late summer of 2007 with a round of suicide attacks on Pakistani forces. Having vowed revenge for the government raid on Islamabad’s Red Mosque that July, he officially launched his jihad against the world’s second-largest, and only nuclear-armed, Muslim state. In August 2007, his men kidnapped around 200 Pakistani soldiers; one of Mehsud’s teenage minions decapitated a soldier because he was a Shiite. Two months later, on the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s planned return from exile, Mehsud reportedly said he would “welcome her with his men.” Within hours of her plane landing in Karachi, two bombs exploded near her motorcade and killed more than 135 people. In December 2007, Mehsud crowned himself amir, or head, of the Pakistani Taliban.
So, does Mehsud’s death mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban? Not by a long shot. The Taliban are a regenerative militia; historically, the death of one Taliban member has only spurred others to avenge the fallen one’s death. Several commanders are waiting to take over from Mehsud, including Qari Hussein, Mehsud’s ruthless deputy, who is thought to be most responsible for training suicide bombers. Whether Hussein or another lieutenant takes over, they’ll be hoping to strike back.
The question is not what they want to do, it’s what they can do. The fact is that Mehsud’s brand had been pretty weak of late. After a sophisticated bomb-and-gun ambush on a police training site outside of Lahore in late March, one Mehsud deputy (and potential successor) pledged to carry out two attacks a week until the drone strikes stopped. The drone strikes didn’t stop, but the attacks never came. Then, shortly after a shooting rampage at an immigration center in Binghamton, N.Y., that left 13 people dead this April, Mehsud told Reuters, “I accept responsibility. They were my men. I gave them orders in reaction to U.S. drone attacks.” When the lone gunman turned out to be a 41-year-old Vietnamese guy, people began to wonder if Mehsud’s kidney problems were affecting his reason. The decision to release scenes of prancing Taliban cast further doubts.
But in the war against al-Qaida, where symbols, DVDs, and audiotapes carry so much weight, Mehsud’s death is a huge victory for both the United States and Pakistan. I imagine his elimination might be comparable to that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—even though al-Qaida in Iraq continued after Zarqawi, it was never the same. Without their near mythical leader (whose stature had grown as a result of all the assassination attempts he had dodged), the Pakistani Taliban may find themselves in a similar, declining trajectory.
Still, in the often shaky counterterrorism alliance between the United States and Pakistan, Mehsud was an easy target. Picture two circles, with America’s greatest enemies in one and Pakistan’s top foes in another: Baitullah Mehsud landed squarely in the overlap. The Pakistanis were willing to supply the intelligence, and the United States was willing the fly the drones to get him.
Now the hard part begins. Since the CIA has demonstrated its ability to pinpoint “high-level targets,” it will want to go after other top Taliban leaders in Pakistan, such as Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan and Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan. But Pakistan’s military and security establishment perceives both men, who focus their fighting in Afghanistan and not in Pakistan, as national security assets more than threats. And there’s no magic drone strike to fix that.