Pakistani Taliban leader's death would be 'fatal blow' for group, analyst says

By Haq Nawaz Khan and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN -- The reported death of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a violent Islamist group with close links to al-Qaeda, leaves the predatory and feared militia effectively decapitated, with its fighters on the run from the Pakistani army and public sympathy running low.

Although the Pakistani Taliban has shown resilience in the past, Pakistani analysts said it would be difficult for the group to quickly recover from the loss of Hakimullah Mehsud, who has reportedly died in a village in northwest Pakistan of burns and injuries he suffered during a U.S. drone missile attack in mid-January.

The group lost its original leader, Baitullah Mehsud, to a drone strike in August. In recent months, it has been driven out of its major sanctuary and become isolated from elders of the Mehsud tribe, who are negotiating with the government to hand over surviving Taliban commanders.

"If he's gone, it's a fatal blow," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "At one point, the Taliban had a lot of momentum and a charismatic leader. Now they've been uprooted and lost all credibility."

Some commentators noted that despite recent losses, the Pakistani Taliban is a highly motivated, ruthless militia with a strong religious agenda that has demonstrated a repeated ability to recover from setbacks. In the past several years, the group has evolved from a rudimentary tribal force to a sophisticated insurgency, capable of attacking major targets and collaborating with other militant groups, including al-Qaeda.

Some observers warned Monday that if Mehsud has died, the Taliban forces may attempt to launch retaliatory strikes and step up their campaign of suicide bombings in an effort to prove they have not been weakened.

The Taliban once had significant support among a variety of Pakistanis, including religious groups and residents of the tribal areas who felt alienated from the state. But the group's cruel repression in areas under its control and attacks on civilian as well as military targets have caused it to lose public support, according to opinion polls and analysts.

'A real turning point'

Pakistani officials have not officially confirmed Mehsud's death, but there were indications Monday that both sides were moving forward under the assumption that the Pakistani Taliban is in search of a new leader. Mehsud, whose group has carried out dozens of suicide bombings, was widely described as Pakistan's top public enemy after he took over the Taliban leadership last year.

He was also the object of an intensive manhunt carried out by CIA drone planes. Aerial strikes intensified after Dec. 30, when a Jordanian suicide bomber attacked a CIA base in Afghanistan, killing five CIA employees, two agency contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer. A video released later showed the bomber meeting with Hakimullah Mehsud and calling on all Muslims to avenge the killing of Baitullah Mehsud.

Gul said the revelation that Mehsud had been involved in the CIA base attack in Khost province was "a real turning point. After that, he became a prime target." There were also unconfirmed reports Monday that Qarimullah Hussain, the Taliban's senior strategist and a likely replacement as its leader, had been wounded and possibly killed in a drone attack in mid-January.

U.S. intelligence agencies remained cautious in their comments about Hakimullah Mehsud's fate. A day after a senior White House official said he was "95 percent" certain about the death, counterterrorism officials declined to make a pronouncement but said an evaluation is continuing.

"It's to some extent incumbent on him to prove he's still in command," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified counterterrorism operations.

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