Is Pakistan's Most Wanted Man Dead Or Alive?

Pakistani officials say they believe Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is dead — killed in a U.S. missile attack last month. But they acknowledge they have no confirmation, and some Taliban spokesmen continue to insist Hakimullah is alive.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Pakistan, the question this morning remains: Is the country's most wanted man dead or alive? Pakistani officials say they have credible information that Pakistani-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is dead, killed in a U.S. drone attack last month. But they acknowledge they have no conformation, and the chief Taliban spokesman continues to insist that Hakimullah is alive.

With more on this puzzle, NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from Islamabad. Hello.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So is there anything new about the fate of this Pakistani-Taliban leader, credible information?

MCCARTHY: There's no elaboration on what credible information means. We had the interior minister claiming that yesterday, but he has made similar claims that Hakimullah was dead in the past, only to be proven wrong. Now, sources within the Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, tell NPR that Hakimullah is dead, but admit that they have no hard evidence to back that up. U.S. intelligence sources say that he's dead. But again, there's no formal statement, perhaps in deference to the Pakistanis, perhaps in deference to the fact that the drone program is very unpopular here, and the less said about it the better. The Pakistan army says it's investigating, and until Pakistan's military officials confirm it or the Taliban pronounces Hakimullah dead, the case is open to speculation and a lot of rumor. And it may be some time before this mystery is solved.

MONTAGNE: Why, though, is it so difficult to determine if he's dead?

MCCARTHY: I think what we see here, Renee, is that this case illustrates that in eight years after a war next door, this border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is lawless and basically remains a black hole for intelligence, largely. Reliable information is spotty. People are routinely killed as spies.

In fact, the army chief, General Kayani, told reporters in a briefing last week that some 75 agents from the Pakistan military intelligence and the ISI had been killed in Waziristan in the last few years. So penetrating the Taliban along the border is very perilous business, and the capability has been eroded, obviously.

So while the CIA run drones, they're gathering large amounts of evidence and large amounts of information, rather, intelligence on the ground is the critical missing link in trying to decipher the Taliban's plans, their movements, and in this case, the fate of their leader.

MONTAGNE: And if this leader is dead, what would that mean for the Pakistani Taliban, and by extension, for Pakistan?

MCCARTHY: Well, let's start with the Pakistani people. It would mean that public enemy number one is no more. Hakimullah has a reputation for ruthlessness that surpassed other leaders. He succeeded Baitullah Mehsud, who was also targeted and killed in a U.S. drone strike in August, but Hakimullah assumed that leadership with a vengeance. He ordered a string of suicide attacks across Pakistan that have killed more than 500 people since October. He was retaliating for the army's offensive that had busted up his stronghold in South Waziristan and scattered Taliban militants across the tribal areas. So if he's gone, as far as the Pakistani people are concerned, it would be welcomed news.

MONTAGNE: And the Taliban there in Pakistan, what about them?

MCCARTHY: Well, there's a split opinion on that. Some analysts say that a second fatal attack on the Taliban's top leadership in six months is a devastating blow, especially at a time when they've been dislodged from their base in South Waziristan.

Now, other long time observers of this militancy say that it's not about a single man, it's about a movement, and that the death of a leader may be a setback, but it's not paralyzing. But, you know, Renee, regardless of whether Hakimullah is dead or alive, the Taliban foot soldiers don't seem to have lost any of their determination.

You know, just yesterday, militants fatally ambushed a rescue team that had gone to help the crew of a Pakistani helicopter that had crashed in the tribal area of Khyber. That happened on the same day a suicide bomber in Khyber blew up another security team, killing some 15 people. So the Taliban is active and showing no signs of letting up here, no matter what the fate of Hakimullah may be.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy, speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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