Taliban Leader's Death Seems More Certain

Authorities in Pakistan say they are increasingly confident that Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban militia, was killed in a U.S. missile strike on Wednesday in Pakistan's tribal region — a claim the Taliban denies. Guest host Daniel Zwerdling speaks with Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.

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DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:

There are conflicting reports this morning from Taliban spokesmen in Pakistan about whether their top leader is dead. Some say Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. missile strike Wednesday. But now another aid to the Taliban chief says that's not true, Mehsud's alive. U.S. officials say Mehsud was likely killed but they can't confirm it. Pakistani officials believe Mehsud planned the assassination of the country's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Nicholas Schmidle joins us now in our studios. He's the author of "To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan." Nicholas, welcome.

Mr. NICHOLAS SCHIMDLE (Author): Thanks for having me on.

ZWERDLING: If it turns out that Mehsud was killed, how big a deal is this both for the U.S. and for the Taliban?

Mr. SCHIMDLE: Well, for the Taliban it's a huge symbolic blow. I mean, Baitullah Mehsud has been the head of the Pakistani Taliban since they announced their existence in December of 2007. He has been very reclusive. He has built up this sort of mythical aura about himself, in many ways perpetuated by the fact that there have been almost two-dozen missile strikes on him that have never quite gotten him until this point. It's also a huge potentially strategic success for Pakistan and the U.S.'s cooperation on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I mean, this is potentially biggest and most known militant leader in the Pakistan-Afghanistan area to be killed since October of 2001.

ZWERDLING: On the other hand, my impression is that the Taliban do a very good job of grooming younger leaders to rise up. So other than the symbolic value if Mehsud was indeed killed, does it really affect the organization of the Taliban and how it functions?

Mr. SCHIMDLE: You're right. The organization will remain intact. And there's something very particular to the Taliban and to the people that mostly comprise the Taliban along this border area, which is if you kill one of them, you often times just sort of regenerate and grow 10 more militants, as all of that person's friends have now sort of doubled down in their vigor to avenge their friend's death.

So in that sense there are new leaders. In fact, Baitullah Mehsud's deputy is arguably far more lethal than he ever was.

Interesting, though, he's not being discussed as one of the potential successors. But so the leadership will sort of evolve.

I do think that it's a huge moral blow for them, though. And I think that Baitullah Mehsud, over the course of the past seven, eight months, had been promising big attacks. And they were coming in fits and spurts, but of late he's been very quiet. And I think that the drone strikes are having a rattling effect on the Taliban as a whole in this area.

ZWERDLING: Can you tell us more about Mehsud himself? You said earlier that he was a sort of mysterious figure. What do people know about him?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Well, he was in his mid-30s. He was a gym rat and apparently had been working as like a bodybuilder, and before he started waging jihad in Afghanistan. So in the mid 1990s he was fighting in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance alongside the Taliban.

After the American invasion, he then returned back to South Waziristan and became a conduit, and became sort of a host for these fleeing Taliban and al-Qaida leaders. He then - you know, Baitullah Mehsud is often regarded as a chieftain of South Waziristan, and his presence and that description tells you a lot about what's happened in the tribal areas over the past seven years.

'Cause here's this young upstart kid with no tribal pedigree who solely because of his fighting skills, and solely because of the fact that he had more suicide bombers at his disposal than anyone else, literally became the most powerful person in the Mehsud Tribe of South Waziristan.

ZWERDLING: He was a bodybuilder?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Yeah, I don't - you know, these guys will have very interesting backgrounds. So Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban honcho in Swat, was actually a ski lift operator at the ski lift in Swat that they would later burn down. And Baitullah Mehsud was apparently a bodybuilder and a gym rat before he realized that his true calling was as a jihadi.

ZWERDLING: Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation. That's a nonpartisan public policy think tank. He's also the author of "To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan."

Nicholas, thanks so much.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me on.

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