Death Of Taliban Leader Would Be A U.S. Coup

Baitullah Mehsud i i

In this screen-grab from Pakistani TV news channel Express News, Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud meets with the press on Aug. 7 in Islamabad. Express Channel/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Express Channel/AP
Baitullah Mehsud

In this screen-grab from Pakistani TV news channel Express News, Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud meets with the press on Aug. 7 in Islamabad.

Express Channel/AP

Reports from Pakistan say one of the country's most-wanted Taliban leaders is dead — killed by a rocket attack from a U.S. drone.

If confirmed, the death of Baitullah Mehsud could be a significant blow to the Islamist militants linked under his umbrella group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

"There's every indication that it is true," says Daniel Markey, an expert on South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And it could be quite significant."

Markey says Mehsud was "above all, the face of the Pakistani Taliban, which was becoming a more serious collective organization, one that U.S. officials saw as being more closely tied to foreign fighters and al-Qaida."

Mehsud, thought to be in his 30s, began his rise to prominence in 2004, when he succeeded another Pashtun tribal leader who was killed in a U.S. airstrike.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have said Mehsud was implicated in organizing bombings, hostage-taking, and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, a charge that he specifically denied. A United Nations study the same year estimated that he was behind about 80 percent of the suicide attacks in the country.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told reporters that authorities are traveling to the region to confirm that Mehsud is dead. Reports said that Mehsud was killed, along with one of his wives and several bodyguards, in a rocket attack on a relative's house in South Waziristan.

NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly said on Morning Edition that U.S. officials want to have DNA confirmation before officially declaring that Mehsud was killed.

His fighting force was well-organized and effective, and he was powerful enough to negotiate a short-lived 2005 cease-fire that compelled the Pakistani military to withdraw from areas under his control.

The U.S. had placed a $5 million bounty on Mehsud's head, and Pakistan also promised a reward for his killing or capture.

If Mehsud is dead, NPR's Philip Reeves reported from Islamabad, it would be a "major coup" for American and Pakistani intelligence agencies.

"There's a symbolic value to having eliminated him," Markey says. "But beyond that, there is a consensus that he was an unusually good, charismatic, effective leader."

Mehsud made occasional media appearances in which he advocated jihad against foreigners, especially the U.S. and Britain. In an Associated Press interview in March, he boasted that "soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world."

Analyst Parag Khanna cautions, though, that "this could prove to be a premature celebration," adding that other leaders may emerge in Mehsud's place, raising a new problem for Pakistani and U.S. intelligence. "When you kill one important leader, you scatter [the militants], and your intelligence game has to start all over again," says Khanna, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Mehsud had become an embarrassment to Pakistan's intelligence services and military, Khanna says, from the Bhutto assassination to the Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley. "He was one of those key people who demonstrated that the Pakistani military was failing to hold the country together," Khanna says.

Khanna notes that Pakistani intelligence services have been accused of protecting militant leaders in the past, sometimes by leaking word of potential attacks. "There comes a point where, if we put sufficient pressure on them, they will have to hand over a person that they had hoped to protect for reasons of their own," he says.

Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, says the real question now is whether Mehsud's death will energize Pakistan's military to do what it said it was going to do after the campaign to regain control of the Swat Valley.

"They said they were going to go into South Waziristan and clean out his forces," Weinbaum says. "With this transitional period, and the uncertain loyalties of his forces to any other leader, this might be the opportunity to resume that effort."

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