Beitullah Mehsud of the Pakistani Taliban Is Dead and It’s Not Enough
Aides to Pakistani Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud confirm that a CIA drone strike has killed the man who inspired and led a vicious insurgency from the tribal areas into the Swat valley. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Quraishi, said Mehsud’s death is “is almost confirmed” through an on-the-ground verification process, just to be “100 percent sure.”
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn contextualizes the death exactly right:
But while Mehsud’s death would be a big blow to the Taliban in Pakistan, he has deputies who could take his place. Whether a new leader could wreak as much havoc as Mehsud depends largely on how much pressure the Pakistani military continues to put on the network, especially in the tribal area of South Waziristan.
This is a real moment of truth for the Pakistani military. U.S. officials for months have been quick to say that the Pakistanis are getting more and more capable with counterinsurgency and embrace its tenets more with each passing day. But I’ve heard from some officials that the military conceives of its real enemy as Mehsud himself, presuming that the network he created will shatter in his absence and that the conditions amongst the people — political, social, economic, etc. — that allowed it to take root are a minor concern. Well, if they’re right, mission accomplished: Mehsud is (almost definitely) dead.
The problem is that ignores everything we’ve learned about extremist movements like the Pakistani Taliban. It’s not that Mehsud is a trivial player; it’s that his death is insufficient to stop the movement. And if the Pakistani military treats Mehsud’s deputy as another target for what some in the military call “warheads on foreheads,” then we should expect the Taliban’s insurgency to continue — as, to be sure, a slog — indefinitely.
One other thing. Just as it’s important with insurgencies to look beyond a specific strike to the movement that made the strike possible, that holds true for intelligence agencies as well. Any such successful strike is the result of a lot of prior intelligence work, particularly human and signals intelligence work, and for that, the CIA can and should be proud. It’s hardly the agency’s fault if the Pakistanis don’t follow up its success.