Taliban power vacuum may benefit Pakistan – or Al Qaeda

A reported shootout over who will succeed Baitullah Mehsud as chief may have killed one top candidate and critically injured another.

Pakistan Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud (l.) is seen with his arm around Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud during a news conference in South Waziristan in this May 2008 file photo.

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Days after the leader of the Pakistani Taliban was killed in a United States airstrike, it appears that the ensuing power struggle has killed at least one more of the group's leaders. During a meeting to discuss who would take over Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after the death of Baitullah Mehsud, fighting broke out between Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud, who were both favorites to succeed Baitullah. Pakistani government officials say Hakimullah was killed in the altercation, but there are also reports that Mr. Rehman received life-threatening injuries, and was possibly killed as well.

So far, there has been no independent verification of either death. The Taliban has denied reports of the incident, reports the Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper.

Immediately following Baitullah's death, a number of experts told the Christian Science Monitor that such a power struggle could erupt. TTP is made up of many different tribes and factions that were held together by Baitullah. Now it remains uncertain how the organization will restructure itself without a strong leader capable of holding together rival groups.

However, the Pakistani military should not assume that infighting will cripple the group for long, reports The Dawn, a Pakistani daily newspaper.

Baitullah has instilled a strong culture of cooperation in his ranks. Moreover, by having Qari Zainullah killed, he set a precedent for how to deal with rivals. In case a unanimous successor is not appointed, we can expect a swift and bloody resolution to the rivalry.

Finally, if one of the three contenders is unhappy with the choice of the new TTP leader, rather than initiate a tribal war, he will probably spend the coming months bolstering his power through intense recruiting and arms acquisition. In this event, a succession squabble would actually expand militancy in Pakistan.

Shortly before his death, Hakimullah called journalists to refute the death of Baitullah, whom Hakimullah said would soon produce a message to provide proof of life. According to The Los Angeles Times, analysts say this move was likely meant to unify TTP members until a new leader could be chosen.

Of particular concern to Western officials, terrorism experts say that the power struggle within TTP could create an opportunity for Al Qaeda to take a greater role in shaping the group's direction. The two groups were already working together, reports The New York Times, with the Taliban benefiting in particular from Al Qaeda's international connections and financing capabilities.

With the loss of up to three critical TTP leaders within the space of a few days, Pakistani and US officials say it is critical to apply increased pressure on the organization while they lack central leadership. ABC News reports that the US is hoping Pakistan will now expand its targeting in the region.

"The United States will be pressing Pakistan behind closed doors saying, 'Look, we've done this important job for you, we've not only hurt the [Taliban in Pakistan], we've also taken out its leadership,'" [Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council] said. "It's time that you helped us now by making sure al Qaeda is routed inside South Waziristan, not simply roused but routed, so that it doesn't have another place in which it can hide."
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