Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

What the Death of Baitullah Mehsud Really Means for the United States and Pakistan

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on August 13, 2009
Photo courtesy of Time Magazine

Photo courtesy of Time Magazine

Soldiers, statesmen, and analysts of the U.S. Intelligence Community have been celebrating over the past week on news that Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed last Wednesday by an American air-strike in South Waziristan.  In an operation that is commonly being viewed by the United States Government as a triumphant victory over Islamic extremism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials are hoping that Mehsud’s death could snowball into a potential unraveling of a unified and coherent Taliban movement.  For Pakistani officials, particularly the newly-installed Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, this development comes as a relief.  After all, the Pakistani Military has been risking the lives of its soldiers, as well as its international credibility as a legitimate fighting force, for the past several months…battling a Taliban-led insurgency that  was quick to expand itself from Pakistan’s tribal areas to 60 miles of Islamabad.  Yet, thanks to persistent American pressure, in addition to Washington’s “Af-Pak” counterinsurgency strategy for the region, the Taliban-Al’Qaeda alliance that once found itself as the dominant authority along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are now on the retreat.  Unfortunately, there is only one problem:  terrorists and insurgents are retreating into Afghanistan, further exacerbating the already treacherous conditions faced by American troops on the ground.

For both Pakistani and U.S. interests in Southwest Asia, the apparent killing of Mehsud comes at a much-needed time when militancy, lawlessness, and religious radicalism were on the upslope throughout the provinces of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.  The Swat-Valley offensive led by Pakistan’s armed-forces, as well as the brutality often portrayed by Al’Qaeda affiliates against ordinary villagers and tribesmen, were already factors that decreased the influence and control of Islamists.  Now, with the death of Mehsud reported by a wide variety of sources, the Pakistani Taliban faces a critical time in its movement…perhaps the most crucial period that the organization has had to deal with since its founding in the 1990’s.  The direct question is this…who will emerge as Mehsud’s successor and rebuild the capabilities of the Pakistani Taliban?

For the U.S. and NATO campaign in Afghanistan, this question does not necessarily translate into immediate benefits in Kabul and Kandahar.  Indeed, Mehsud’s killing is certainly a major success story for Washington and Islamabad, considering both capitals’ shared objective in combating terrorism and political extremism in all its forms.  It may even be accurate to conclude that Mehsud’s decline will eventually destroy the unified ideology that cemented the movement’s many ethnic and tribal factions together…further eliminating the threat posed by Taliban militants against President Zardari’s government and the Pakistani population.   However, with this being said, U.S. Commanders in Afghanistan should be weary of a possible Taliban dissolution in Pakistan.  Such infighting within the organization will not only have drastic consequences for the security and stability of the region…it will also inevitably create a circumstance that U.S. and NATO soldiers have yet to experience: fighting multiple enemies on multiple fronts.

Some may say that the U.S. Military, under the leadership and guidance of General David Petraeus, has already mastered these counterinsurgency techniques in Iraq, when the country was beginning to drift apart due to the violent aspirations of Sunni insurgents and Shia militias.  Some may even state that American soldiers are currently engaging in this type of asymmetrical warfare in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, where Taliban fighters are often decentralized and spread out compared to their western counterparts.  These assertions may be true in technical terms.  Yet, with Mehsud seared in half, and with the Pakistani Taliban in disarray over who will replace the iconic Muslim as their next commander, the possibility of the movement’s complete separation is extremely dangerous for the American mission in Afghanistan.  With Mehsud killed, the one man talented enough to keep rival tribes together in an orderly-rank-and-file is gone…leaving behind an insecure skeptical, and fragmented group.  If we have learned anything in the field of terrorism, it is that potential aspirants will use whatever violent means possible to exert personal control over the future of an organization.  More times than not, infighting within a terrorist group will occur after the “main man” is killed or captured.

This, however, is unlikely to happen to the Pakistani Taliban.  Over the next few weeks and months, do not be surprised to discover the Pakistani Taliban’s many ethnicities separating from each other, entering Afghanistan themselves and fighting American troops independently.  From a military perspective, resisting a swath of small, yet numerous, insurgencies is much more detrimental than fighting a single enemy.

Omar Waraich of Time Magazine said it best in this week’s issue:

Under his charismatic and fearsome leadership, at least 13 separate and disparate groups were able to forge a fractious but powerful alliance. If Mehsud is gone, that alliance is likely to fracture. His replacement will determine the new direction of the Pakistani Taliban: it may fall under the greater influence of al-Qaeda, concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan, continue fighting chiefly in Pakistan or break up into small, rival groups.

For President Obama, Special Envoy Richard Holbrook, and his entire national-security team at the White House, each of these scenarios places the United States at a severe disadvantage.  If Al’Qaeda is able to exert control over the Pakistani Taliban, well-coordinated and devastating terrorist incidents will likely occur in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan (further jeopardizing the region’s overall stability while hurting the morale of American troops on the ground).  If one of Mehsud’s loyalists rises to the top of the ladder, Pakistani security forces will have a rough couple of months ahead of them…further risking their blood and treasure in an unending confrontation against Islamic insurgency.  If the Pakistani Taliban separates, like I am predicting, a whole new conflict may be created between Afghans and Pakistanis themselves, based solely on sectarian, ethnic, and tribal lines.  Finally, if members of the Taliban begin viewing their Pakistani branch as a lame-duck, the prospects of increased American and Afghan casualties in Afghanistan are all the more likely.  The Islamic movement may start to question their abilities against the Pakistani Military, instead focusing their priorities on fighting the foreign-occupation inside Afghanistan.  If this is the case, the American electorate should be prepared to witness a rising body count on their television screens.

Thus, by taking a closer look at the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, students and scholars of international affairs are able to uncover the real effects of last week’s U.S.-drone attack in South Waziristan.  Sure, killing terrorists is always a good thing when the free and civilized world is engaged in a continuous struggle against radical Islam.  Equally accurate, targeting leaders of radical Islam may be a good short-term solution to the complicated facts surrounding counterterrorism and the “War on Terrorism” in general.  The ongoing air campaign directed against Al’Qaeda and Taliban hideouts along the Afghan-Pakistani border is only a testament to this well-received view in Washington.  However, the death of a nihilistic individual, while extraordinarily beneficial to the United States and its western allies at first glance, could quickly result in an unwanted escalation of further violence and intimidation.

In the corporate environment of the real world, weakening an enemy always translates into your advantage.  However, in the confusing and frustrating world of terrorism, one rarely deals in absolutes.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Omar Waraich of Time Magazine contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at:  http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1915592,00.html

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