Reports from Pakistan indicate that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed during a US airstrike that took place on Aug. 5 in South Waziristan. While it is a victory for the US and the Pakistani government, Baitullah’s death may provide the Pakistani government and its military with an excuse to opt out of entering South Waziristan to clear it of the Taliban.
Baitullah was reported to have been visiting his second wife at a compound run by his father-in-law, Ikramuddin Mehsud. Unmanned US strike aircraft, probably the Predators or the more sophisticated Reapers, fired four missiles at the compound. Baitullah, his wife, his brother, and seven bodyguards are thought to have been killed.
Late yesterday, US and Pakistani intelligence officials began to suspect Baitullah had been killed after there were reports of a funeral. Additionally, family members whispered he was killed. Reports have also emerged that the Pakistani Taliban is meeting to appoint a successor. Pakistani officials, who have a terrible track record of reporting the deaths of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, are certain Baitullah is dead.
Earlier today, Faqir Mohammed, Baitullah’s deputy in the Bajaur tribal agency, confirmed that Baitullah was indeed killed in the strike; other Taliban leaders made similar statements.
Impact of Baitullah’s death in Pakistan and Afghanistan
The effects of Baitullah’s death on the Taliban’s efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan are likely to be mixed.
In Pakistan, the government and military may seize upon Baitullah’s death to declare victory in South Waziristan and end the military blockade and air strikes aimed at defeating his Taliban forces. The military has previously stated it does not want to move into South Waziristan by force and has no intentions of taking on other influential Taliban leaders in the region, such as North Waziristan’s Hafiz Gul Bahadar and the Haqqani Family, and South Waziristan’s Mullah Nazir .
An end to operations by the Pakistani government in South Waziristan would negatively impact NATO operations in Afghanistan, as pressure on the Pakistani Taliban would be lifted, allowing them to redouble efforts in Afghanistan as opposed to defending their territory in Pakistan’s northwest.
The death of Baitullah will cause a crisis in the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership, and may disrupt operations in the short term. Although the Pakistani Taliban has often been described as disparate, Baitullah effectively united the factions and directed operations that led to the Taliban’s takeover of significant territory in Pakistan’s northwest. The Taliban will expend time and effort determining Baitullah’s successor, restructuring the group’s leadership, and outlining its new direction. Attacks in Pakistan already had decreased over the past month as the Pakistani Army took on the Taliban in Swat. Since going underground, the Pakistani Taliban have been regrouping and are planning the next phase of their insurgency. It is unclear if the Taliban will refocus effort onto Afghanistan or continue attacks against the Pakistani state.
The new Taliban leader may decide to conduct strikes against Pakistani security forces and their tribal enemies as a show of force. Baitullah rules through fear and was known as an effective commander. His successor may feel the need to demonstrate his own power.
In the wake of Baitullah’s death, the Pakistani Taliban will also be forced to devote more of their resources to improving security. Meetings and movements will become more difficult, and efforts to root out suspected spies will increase. The costs of increasing personal security for Pakistani Taliban leaders will negatively affect their ability to meet, plan, and direct coordinated operations.
In Afghanistan, however, Taliban operations, at least in the short term, will most likely not be impacted by Baitullah’s death. Local Taliban commanders have wide latitude in deciding how to use their forces, and many will continue to sortie forces across the border. Some may choose to hold forces in reserve, fearing a Pakistani Army assault, but the Army has been hesitant about committing forces after devoting its energy in Swat.
In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the selection of Baitullah’s successor will have a significant impact over the long term. If a leader such as Hakeemullah Mehsud is chosen, the Pakistani Taliban probably will continue attacks against the state. Over time, the Pakistani military will be forced to act against a leader such as Hakeemullah, who has actively directed military and suicide operations against the Pakistani state and NATO convoys moving through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda itself will not be significantly affected by Baitullah’s death. The terror group has developed a vast network with a wide array of contacts. Its training camps and safe houses are spread throughout northwestern Pakistan. Baitullah was a close ally to al Qaeda, but South Waziristan leaders such as Mullah Nazir, Hakeemullah Mehsud, and Qari Hussain Mehsud will continue to champion the al Qaeda cause.
Background on Baitullah Mehsud
Baitullah was appointed the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in December 2007 after local Taliban groups in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the tribal areas met to select a leader. After his rise to power, he oversaw the Taliban takeover of the tribal areas and in several districts in the Northwest Frontier Province. He was behind numerous suicide attacks throughout Pakistan, and has been directly implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shortly after her return from exile in late 2007.
Based out of South Waziristan, Baitullah had become the most prominent Taliban leader in Pakistan. He commanded tens of thousands of well-trained fighters, who conduct suicide and conventional attacks against Pakistani, Coalition, and Afghan forces. Since 2004, Baitullah’s fighters have defeated the Pakistani Army in several engagements.
In the fall of 2007, Baitullah defeated the Army and Frontier Corps in several engagements in South Waziristan. In one instance, he took captive an entire company of Pakistan regular troops, or more than 300 men. In January 2008, the Pakistani Army invaded South Waziristan, but soon agreed to a cease-fire after abruptly ending the operation.
Baitullah was closely allied with Osama bin Laden and with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda shelters in Baitullah’s tribal areas and maintains scores of training camps and safe houses in the region.
Baitullah had openly stated his intention to conduct attacks against the United States and the West. He “poses a clear threat to American persons and interests in the region,” the State Department said earlier this year, when it offered up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.