For years, he was among the most dangerous men in the most dangerous of regions. Then last week, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an alliance of around 13 jihadist groups, and the most notorious and powerful of the Taliban commanders in Pakistan, reportedly met his match.
On August 5, a drone-launched U.S. missile strike demolished a house belonging to Mehsud’s father-in-law. Early accounts suggested that one of Mehsud’s wives and several guards had perished in the attack, yet more collateral damage in the brutal fighting that has rocked Pakistan in recent years.
Very quickly, however, the story began to change. Chatter among various local Taliban groups increased. An unusually large funeral was held – far bigger than what a second wife and a few guards would warrant. Before long, buzz began to build in the Western intelligence community: Could the elusive leader himself have been killed?
It now looks that way. Although some Taliban fighters continue to deny his death, a number of reports suggest that Mehsud was indeed killed during last week’s attack – reportedly while receiving a leg massage. Pakistani government officials have declared Mehsud dead, and the U.S. government asserts that there is a “90 percent certainty” that he had been killed. Even some Taliban officials confirmed his death the day after the strike and announced that a new leader would be selected. Yet another sign that Mehsud may have been killed in the recent attack is the emerging battle over the Taliban’s leadership. Reports abound of gun battles between Taliban troops loyal to different candidates vying to replace Mehsud.
The missile strike that seemingly killed Mehsud, and many others like it, are all part of President Obama’s still-developing strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, now the main theater for U.S. military operations. Tens of thousands of American troops are flooding into southern Afghanistan, providing much-needed relief for embattled British and Canadian troops in the region. U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan, has warned that the increasing violence indicates that the Taliban have gained momentum and that NATO will have to battle very hard indeed to beat them back.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is continuing to wage an apparently successful counter-insurgency campaign on its own territory. The problem confronting commanders on both sides of the poorly defended Pakistan-Afghanistan border is that success in one country simply drives men and arms across the border into the other. The more Pakistan presses against Taliban positions in the northern tribal areas, the harder NATO’s job becomes in southern Afghanistan. Greater cooperation is needed between America and Pakistan, but U.S. attacks into Pakistani territory, begun during the Bush Administration and expanded by President Obama, as well as concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, have eroded relations between the two countries.
By taking out Mehsud, President Obama may be offering the Pakistanis a peace offering. In Pakistan, Meshud was a powerful and much-feared leader, commanding up to 20,000 militants. Pakistani authorities held him responsible for several high-profile terrorist attacks, including the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud was also a major figure in the bloody civil war waged this spring between the Pakistani Army and Taliban terrorists.
Still, Mehsud’s militia operated only in Pakistan and, despite a fondness for anti-Western rhetoric, Mehsud himself posed no direct threat to the US. By assassinating him, the United States will have pleased many senior Pakistani officials, fostering military and strategic cooperation in the months ahead.
If that was indeed a factor in last week’s assassination, it would be in line with other efforts by senior Obama administration officials to recast the War on Terror as less of an American-led war and more of an international campaign. At the same time, the administration has sought to deemphasize the military aspect of the campaign while talking up its humanities benefits.
For evidence of this rhetorical shift, one need only look to a recent speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies by John Brennan, Obama’s top advisor on counter-terrorism operations. In his remarks, Brennan effectively declared an end to the War on Terror. “The President does not describe this as a ‘War on Terrorism,’” Brennan announced. He went on to say that in President Obama’s vision, the US would not seek merely to defeat al-Qaeda and its allies, but also to address ignorance, poverty, and repression, since terrorist attacks are often “the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation, and hatred.” The War on Terror had become the War on Poverty.
And yet the rhetoric seems to be just that. While the president’s top aides instruct audiences foreign and domestic about the need to cure the supposed root causes of terrorism, it is noteworthy that Obama’s policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan has not changed radically from the Bush years. On the contrary, the administration has increased the military presence in the region. Just this week, the Defense Department announced that there will be more operations like the one launched to root out the Taliban in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
All this calls to mind the president’s still-unkept promise to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay: an unrealistic goal doomed to failure by the simple reality that there are no better options, no matter how much the president wishes otherwise. At the end of the day, the tens of thousands of extra troops sent to Afghanistan are not there to spread good cheer, and the aerial drones patrolling Pakistan’s skies are not firing self-esteem.
To be sure, calling the struggle against radical Islam the “war on terror” was always sloppily vague, and Obama’s new diplomatic mantra may make the U.S. counterterrorism effort more palatable abroad without changing its substance. But it is worth bearing in mind that the best proof of the administration’s success is that men like Baitullah Mehsud are no longer around to negotiate.