Who Cares if a Top Taliban Leader is Killed?
There was an exciting buzz in CIA headquarters a few days ago; rumors were pouring into Langley offices that Hakimullah Mehsud- the Pakistani Taliban chief who has caused so much death and havoc in both Afghanistan and Pakistan- may have been killed during the latest U.S. missile strike.
For an agency that is still reeling from the aftereffects of a suicide-bomb blast that claimed the lives of seven CIA officials, I am sure this news was greeted with a sense of optimism, despite the accuracy of the source. In fact, upon confirming the rumor, I suspect that some CIA managers were trying with all of their angst to keep their celebratory emotions in check.
Well, as more information about the U.S. drone-attack surfaces, it is a good thing that Langley did not succumb to the tempting premature victory dance. On Saturday, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman- Azim Tariq- played an audio tape for Reuters denying the death of the Islamic “emir.” The voice of Mehsud himself was even heard on the message, a man who was quick to point out America’s flaws and its inability to dent the group’s sound structure.
Certainly, the latest attempt to bring down Mehsud may have failed from a tactical standpoint, but the botched execution does not necessarily weaken the United States in its core objective: defeating the Pakistani Taliban in its entirety. Hakimullah Mehsud may be a cold-blooded killer and the main facilitator and inspiration for the Taliban’s operations, but he is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of the group.
Eliminating Mehsud would certainly be a symbolic accomplishment for the U.S. and Pakistan in South Asia, but we would be wise to not give the man too much credit. Despite arguments by traditional terrorism analysts, Mehsud is not the backbone of the Pakistani Taliban.
In all honestly, killing Hakimullah Mehsud won’t too much to solve the militant problem. Compared to its more centralized Afghan Taliban relatives, the Pakistani Taliban is a much more fluid and decentralized organization. Getting rid of a top leader- even if the man is the “head” of a terrorist network- won’t do much good in the long-term. The Pakistani Taliban would just replace Mehsud and continue with its operations in Pakistan’s tribal frontier. In fact, the United States has already learned that killing or capturing top Taliban leaders is only a short-term fix; the attack on Baitullah Mehsud last August (while a noteworthy achievement) did not really damper the tactical abilities of the Pakistani group.
If you really want to disrupt the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, U.S. and Pakistani authorities need to go one step further. U.S. officials have it right when they talk about low-level fighters, financers, and supporters; unless these sources are untouched, killing a top militant will probably have an adverse effect. I am sure the CIA is already doing this, but intelligence agents must track, monitor, and eventually destroy the Islamic charities and wealthy Arab Sheiks that fund the radicals in the first place. And of course, you need to start solving some of the issues that make radicalism a good alternative.
Unless this is done, killing Mehsud, Obama bin-Laden, or Ayman al-Zawahiri may only give the Taliban and Al’Qaeda more reason to fight.
**Comments courtesy of Newsweek’s Declassified**
-Daniel R. DePetris