Killing of Pakistan Taliban chief could touch off power struggle

Without the charismatic Baitullah Mehsud, feuding Islamist militants could splinter.

In this video taken on May 24, 2008, Pakistan's top Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud talks to the media in Kotkai, a village in the Pakistani tribal area along the Afghan border. According to Kafayat Ullah, a Taliban commander and aide to the leader, Friday, Mehsud, who led a violent campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations against the Pakistani government, was killed in a US missile strike on Wednesday.

The probable killing of a top Taliban leader in Pakistan may open up a power struggle within the fractious insurgency that Islamabad could use to divide and conquer.

Baitullah Mehsud unified more than a dozen militant factions two years ago, putting them under his umbrella as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But as recently as late June, Mr. Mehsud faced a serious revolt within his own Mehsud tribe – one he put down by assassinating its leader.

Now, indications are that Mehsud himself has been assassinated – done in by a US drone Wednesday. The US has not confirmed the killing yet, but Afghan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told BBC radio on Friday that it was "pretty certain" that Mehsud is dead.

With Mehsud out of the picture, analysts say it's possible the internal Taliban rivalries he managed to suppress will resurface.

"I don't think the TTP movement would remain intact" without Mehsud, says Roshtam Shah Mohmand, a former chief secretary for the Northwest Frontier Province. "I think no other leader would have the same charisma, appeal, popularity, and stature."

Insurgent leaders are reportedly meeting today to decide on a successor. How smoothly that process goes will offer clues about the real remaining strength of the movement.

"If it's as big an organization and powerful an outfit as everyone thinks it to be, I'm sure they must have [prepared for] these contingencies," says Rifaat Hussain, a security expert at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. That said, he agrees that the TTP may experience "centrifugal tendencies," and the government could exploit any fissures that emerge.

The names of several possible successors are circulating among Taliban watchers.

Two leading candidates, says Mr. Mohmand, are Hakimullah Mehsud and Azmatullah Mehsud, both from the same tribe as Baitullah, and close lieutenants of his. Azmatullah operates out of South Waziristan, Baitullah's home base, and Hakimullah operates further north, in Orakzai Agency. Another candidate receiving mention in the Pakistani press is Mufti Waliur Rehman.

What steps should government take?

Analysts agree that his death is an opportunity for Pakistan, but disagree on what the right next step is.

Internal confusion within the Pakistani Taliban caused by uncertainty over succession means "this phase is the time to act," says Imtiaz Gul, the head of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

He says the government should step up intelligence efforts and not press the button on a government promise to launch a ground offensive into South Waziristan.

Mr. Hussain favors a more direct approach. Mehsud's death has blunted Pakistan's appetite for what would surely be a tough military operation, but "it's still in the cards," he says. [Editor's note: The original version misattributed this quote.]

"Now the strategy is, you try to contain them through a ground offensive and preempt them from using suicide attacks and try to take out the planning cell [with drones]," Hussain says. "I think that's the model you will see increasingly followed."

Mohmand said it's too soon for a ground invasion, because it's not clear yet what the new TTP leadership will look like.

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