The Pakistani Taliban's Coming Divide

How the Death of Its Leader Could Be Bad for the United States

Baitullah Mehsud at a news conference, 2009. (Courtesty Reuters)

For good reason, U.S. and Pakistani officials are eager to declare Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), dead. A TTP-sponsored attack in 2009 on U.S. Forward Operating Base Chapman killed seven CIA employees. And the TTP has repeatedly hit Pakistani government targets with impressive brutality. Most recently, it released a video of its execution of 15 captured Pakistani soldiers, which declared, "This will be the fate of you all." 

Thus, when, on January 15, news outlets across the world reported Mehsud dead, killed by a U.S. drone attack, many must have breathed a sigh of relief. But those reports may have been premature. Over the past two years, several similar announcements -- some even by prominent officials such as Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik -- have surfaced, only to be proved false by Taliban videos shortly thereafter. Mehsud even took credit for the 2010 attempted Times Square bombing months after supposedly dying. For their part, TTP spokesmen have adamantly denied that Mehsud is dead, or that he was even in the area of attack. Of course, it issued similar denials following the drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the previous TTP head, in August 2009. This Mehsud could be dead, wounded, or unscathed, but considering the increasing capability of U.S. intelligence and its ability to execute on it with drones, chances are high that his days are numbered. 

It is tempting to assume that the assassination of an uncompromising Pakistani Taliban leader would be an unmitigated benefit for the United States. But the reality is not that simple, especially given ongoing efforts to negotiate an end to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States has hinted at initiating talks with various anti-coalition groups, including with the Taliban in Qatar and Hizb-i-Islami in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it has left negotiations with the TTP entirely to Islamabad. (And that is intentional. Islamabad would likely be quite hostile

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