By Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 9, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 8 -- In the power vacuum created by the apparent death of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, a gun battle broke out Saturday between Taliban leaders vying to seize his mantle in the tribal borderlands, Pakistani officials said, the first indications of a struggle that could prompt fighters to move across the border into Afghanistan.
The effect of the apparent death of Mehsud, who deployed his fighters mainly against Pakistani targets, "could be to free up militants to come into Afghanistan," said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in that country.
"Baitullah Mehsud was putting such pressure on the government of Pakistan that I don't know if his successor or successors will do the same," McChrystal said in an interview Saturday, emphasizing that it is difficult at this point to predict how Mehsud's fighters will react.
The prospect of more fighters flowing into Afghanistan comes at a particularly challenging time for U.S. and NATO forces, as Marines battle the Taliban there in the southern province of Helmand and insurgents threaten to unleash further violence ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential election. The U.S. military has picked up reports that in addition to suicide bombings and other high-profile attacks, the Taliban plans to intimidate voters into staying away from the polls, McChrystal said.
There have been reports that "people who show up with ink on their finger will have their finger cut off," he said. "They probably have the intent to try to disrupt the election. But they also are scared of the election, because they wouldn't try to do it if the election was nothing to them. Last time, they didn't pay it much mind. This time, I think they're clearly concerned" about Afghans' growing acceptance of governance.
For at least the second consecutive day since the U.S. missile strike Wednesday that Pakistani and American officials say they believe killed Mehsud, Taliban fighters gathered in the South Waziristan tribal district Saturday to choose new leadership. During the meeting in the Sara Rogha area, an argument and shooting broke out between two potential successors to Mehsud, Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, according to two Pakistani officials.
"The exchange of fire, reports suggest, took place between two important contenders for the Taliban chief's slot," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in an interview. "According to information, one of them has been killed, but as of now we can't say who it was."
A government official in South Waziristan said intelligence reports indicate that the man killed Saturday was Hakimullah Mehsud, a close aide to Baitullah Mehsud who has been linked to attacks on NATO convoys. However, the Associated Press reported receiving a call from Hakimullah Mehsud on Saturday morning.
In another potential sign of disarray within the Pakistani Taliban ranks, some fighters called reporters Saturday insisting that Baitullah Mehsud was alive. A Taliban fighter called a Washington Post reporter to say he was 100 percent sure of it, although he could not provide evidence.
A former National Assembly member from South Waziristan, Maulana Mirajuddin, also said he received a call from a "very trusted associate" claiming that Mehsud was alive.
However, another leader of the Mehsud tribe from the area said such assertions were merely attempts to sow confusion, adding that "the Taliban are trying to hush up the matter to keep the loosely connected Pakistani Taliban intact."
Mehsud's suspected death could have far-reaching implications for the Pakistani army's fight against the Taliban, with some observers suggesting that the army might suspend plans for a ground invasion of South Waziristan to pursue a less confrontational policy.
"A new Taliban leadership with a softer image will be introduced to get public support in the country," said another Mehsud tribal leader from South Waziristan who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The army might try to "bring in some moderate leadership," he said.
A Pakistani intelligence official said the fate of the South Waziristan operation hinges on how Baitullah Mehsud's fighters react.
"If there is again a surge in suicide bombings and subversive acts," he said, "then the offensive could be launched soon."
Khan reported from Islamabad. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.