Pakistani Militant Leader’s Death A Tactical Victory, But Deeper Network Remains

Our guest blogger is Colin Cookman, special assistant for national security at the Center for American Progress

mehsud-web2If reports by Pakistani officials and at least two Taliban commanders are confirmed, the United States’ covert Predator drone campaign may have just scored a major hit in killing Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistani and U.S. intelligence blame Mehsud for the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the September 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriot, and scores of other suicide and bomb attacks within the country. A late night strike Wednesday on the house of Mehsud’s father-in-law, which was initially reported to have killed his second wife and one other person, is now believed to have killed Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist leader as he was undergoing kidney treatments. It was the 28th recorded strike to have taken place during the Obama administration’s tenure.

Taliban leaders are reportedly gathering in a shura council to select a new leader to replace Mehsud as the head of the TTP. Contenders for the position reportedly include Hakimullah Mehsud (not a direct relation), a high-profile subcommander responsible for attacks on NATO supply lines through the Khyber Pass and the June 9th bombing of the Peshawar Pearl Continental; Waliur Rehman, a cousin of Baitullah’s who serves as a deputy to Bajaur commander Faqir Mohammad and who Mehsud is said to have favored as a replacement; and Azmatullah Mehsud, another Baitullah Mehsud relation said to sit on the TTP leadership council.

Under Baitullah Mehsud’s leadership, the umbrella Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan network established links between local militant commanders across Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and into the Northwest Frontier Province, transcending tribal boundaries and eliminating rivals who resisted his efforts to consolidate power. (See this CAP interactive map for profiles of some of the major militant figures and their linkages.) Commanders Sirajuddin Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who participated in the December 2007 council that established Baitullah Mehsud as TTP’s leader but who remain organizationally independent, will likely play an important role in shaping the organization’s future and the broader Taliban movement in Pakistan’s northwest. Foreign Al Qaeda operatives are also believed to play background roles as facilitators between the various Pakistani militant groups, including Punjab sectarian and Kashmir-focused terror outfits, as well as serving as conduits to international donors based in the Persian Gulf.

Mehsud’s death, if confirmed, certainly represents a test for this broad militant network. They have shown considerable resiliency and increasing lethality over the past several years, despite sporadic efforts by the Pakistani security services to divide them and target those identified as enemies of the Pakistani state. Some independent local commanders, like Gul Bahadur and South Waziristan’s Maulvi Nazir, reportedly objected to Mehsud’s ties to foreign Uzbek fighters and regular attacks on the Pakistani security services. But these commanders, who continue to endorse attacks on international coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan, appear to have reconciled their differences with the TTP and have pledged to carry out attacks on Pakistani forces if the Predator campaign against them continues and the army makes good on vows to conduct operations against Mehsud’s forces in South Waziristan.

As Spencer Ackerman and others cautions, Mehsud’s death alone will not eliminate the threat Pakistan faces from internal militant organizations. The Pakistani security services’ long reliance on indirect, paramilitary proxies against its regional rivals may make it tempting for Islamabad to celebrate the death of Mehsud and avoid looking too closely at the deeper governance vacuum that has allowed militant networks to flourish in these areas. Baitullah Mehsud’s death, like that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi three years ago in Iraq, represents a tactical rather than strategic victory, and the Pakistani and American governments will have to rely on more than Hellfire missiles to capitalize on his absence.