ANOTHER COUNTER-TERRORISM SUCCESS STORY?…. In August, a U.S. strike reportedly killed Baitullah Mehsud, a dangerous terrorist who led the Taliban in Pakistan. Today, it appears another U.S. strike has taken out his successor.
Evidence mounted Monday that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, an extremist Islamic militia with close links to al Qaeda and a record of major suicide bombings, has died of burns and other injuries he received during a recent U.S. missile strike in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region.
The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, first reported Sunday on Pakistani state television, has not been confirmed by Pakistani officials, and Taliban spokesmen continued to deny it Monday. But one government official said it was “80 per cent” certain Mehsud had died. In addition, both a tribal leader and a Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave similar descriptions of the militia leader’s severe injuries after the mid-January missile strike.
Mehsud’s apparent demise, coming less than six months after the killing of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in another U.S. drone missile attack, leaves the once-predatory and feared militia effectively decapitated and its fighters on the run from the Pakistan army, which has driven them from both the Swat Valley and the South Waziristan tribal area.
Analysts in Pakistan said it would be extremely difficult for the Taliban to recover from the loss of both leaders, especially given the precipitous decline in public support for the militia and its increasing isolation from elders of the Mehsud tribe, who are now 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. “At one point the Taliban had a lot of momentum and a charismatic leader. Now they’ve been uprooted and lost all credibility.”
A senior White House official has said he was “95 percent” certain that Mehsud had been killed by the U.S. strike. A senior U.S. official added, “This is one of the worst people on the planet.”
Andrew Sullivan noted the political angle: “If you add this record — and there are many examples of similar surgical strikes decapitating Qaeda figures in the last year — to the ramp-up of forces in Afghanistan and overhaul of strategy there, I think you can make a very solid case that in the war on Jihadist terrorism, Obama is proving far more effective — in both soft and hard power — than the Bush administration ever was.”
Such a concept is probably so hard to fathom for much of the political establishment that the very suggestion will likely be ignored.
But Obama has a pretty compelling case to make on this front, and hinted at it last week in the State of the Union: “Since the day I took office, we’ve renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We’ve made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We’ve prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008.”
Part of the issue here is that Obama and his team simply don’t like exploiting counter-terrorism victories for political gain. Notice, for example, that there was no grandstanding or back-slapping after Baitullah Mehsud was killed in August. Or when U.S. forces took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa, in September. It seems likely most Americans won’t hear about Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, either, despite its significance.
The president, by all appearances, finds shameless politicization of counter-terrorism offensive. And it is. But Republicans are running an aggressive misinformation scheme, and the media generally just goes along. There may come a point at which the White House reconsiders whether the public rewards or punishes leaders who act like grown-ups.