Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), reportedly has been killed by a US drone strike in S. Waziristan. Aides have claimed he is not dead, but a more recent claim that he is “gravely ill” is probably backtracking and foreshadowing an announcement of his death, doubtless due to natural causes so as to admit no success for the United States and Pakistan – the latter privately supportive of the drone attacks. Mehsud’s death is certainly in some sense a victory for the US and Pakistan, but unfolding dynamics, unclear though they presently are, may not be entirely beneficial to the US.
Baitullah Mehsud learned his craft in the Afghan Taliban in the 90s and through his charisma and aggressiveness was able to build the TTP into a credible insurgent force that threatened US/NATO supply lines through the Khyber Pass and even struck into the Punjab. His death leads to questions about succession – always a difficult matter on the death of a charismatic figure atop a non-routinized movement. This source of instability within the TTP was clear on Mehsud’s death and recent events have done nothing to disabuse observers of this view. His lieutenants are denying his death to buy time to promote themselves, and perhaps seeking to settle matters by killing rivals – a common enough and rather decisive technique. This presents the possibility of protracted fighting between TTP factions – a boon for Washington and Islamabad.
The recent success of drone attacks on al Qaeda, Taliban, and TTP leaders has fueled paranoia within those movements. Leaders, reasonably enough, suspect insiders are collaborating in the attacks or that US special forces enjoy support in the hills of the tribal agencies. This atmosphere augments mistrust and rivalry and makes succession a more contentious effort, if not a futile one.
The deaths of the leader and his top lieutenants, if true, present the possibility of a power vacuum in which the elders of the Mehsud tribe can reassert authority over the young men of S. Waziristan. It was chronic war that weakened their hold over those who came to see more honor and glory in fighting than in herding. Perhaps chronic war with the nightmarish addition of sudden extirpation from unseen aircraft will lead to greater control over the young men of the tribal agencies, who themselves are being worn down by years of fighting.
Other dynamics are less auspicious for the US/NATO efforts in the region. The new TTP leader might well lead his efforts with more craft and subtlety than did Mehsud, who like many guerrilla leaders enjoyed an image beyond his capability. He made one if not two serious blunders in the last year.
First, his drive into the Punjab earlier this year, which violated a pact with the the Pakistani government that gave him virtual autonomy in parts of the North-West Frontier Provinces and a free hand to fight the West in Afghanistan, managed to achieve something that no one in Pakistani politics has been able to do in decades – unite generals, politicians, and public. Most Pakistanis saw the TTP attack as a serious danger and supported the counterattack into Swat – this at a time when society seemed to be nearing anarchy. By most accounts, the TTP was driven back with considerable losses.
Second, his forays out of S. Waziristan to interdict US/NATO supplies incurred the wrath of neighboring tribes by violating boundaries and endangering sources of revenue based on truck traffic. The government in recent months has been able to enlist the support of tribal militias to fight the Mehsuds, much as the British did in Kipling’s day. Baitullah Mehsud had painted himself into a small corner of the country he hoped to control.
A more adroit successor might be able to restore the pact between the state and the TTP that Mehsud wrecked. This would enable the TTP to regenerate in its tribal lands and continue its anti-western campaigns in Afghanistan. The state, for its part, would be able to devote attention to the pressing refugee problem in Swat, forego a costly and potentially destabilizing offensive in S. Waziristan, and concentrate on relations with other Islamist groups who play important roles in strategic plans vis-a-vis India.
The absence of a successor or reassertion of tribal authority over the TTP rank and file could have adverse effects. Fighters may fall away from their commanders and resort to banditry to make a living, as did many mujahadin after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. Alternately, many will file north and serve with the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, or HIzb-i Islami. Indeed, the warrior is more prized than the herdsman on both sides of the Durand Line.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org