The death of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud would inflict major damage against an al-Qaeda ally already under pressure from U.S. and Pakistani attacks, but is unlikely to deal a killer blow to an organization blamed for scores of bloody bombings.
The army and government officials said on Sunday it was investigating a media report that Mehsud died from injuries sustained in a U.S. missile strike in mid-January close to the Afghan border, but said they could not confirm it. The report was apparently based on witnesses who said they had attended his funeral last week.
The New York Times and the Washington Post quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying they are more than 90 percent certain Mehsud had died. The Long War Journal, a U.S. Web site that closely monitors the American missile campaign in the northwest, quoted U.S. intelligence officials as saying there was no indication he had been killed.
Taliban spokesmen were not available for comment.
If the report is true, it would be the second major success against the Pakistani Taliban in six months. In August, a U.S. missile killed the group’s founder, Baitullah Mehsud. In October, the Pakistan army launched a major operation in the movement’s stronghold of South Waziristan that retook the area but failed to kill many of its leaders.
Taliban commanders Waliur Rehman and Qari Hussein are seen as the two most likely successors to replace Hakimullah. Hussein is known as the group’s chief trainer of suicide bombers. Rehman was the commander in South Waziristan. In remarks to the media, they have shown themselves to be just as committed to war against the Pakistani state and the United States as Hakimullah.
“Even if Hakimullah Mehsud is dead ... violence is not on the verge of ending, indeed the country will be bracing itself for retaliatory strikes,” the Dawn newspaper said in an editorial. “But neither should the severe damage inflicted on the Pakistani Taliban be underestimated.”
While considered distinct organizations, the Pakistan Taliban are closely allied with the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are being killed by insurgents in greater numbers than ever before. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, also believed to be hiding out in Pakistan’s northwest, is a supporter.
Mehsud’s importance for the United States was highlighted last month when he appeared in a video beside the Jordanian man who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide bombing at a remote base in Afghanistan. The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, said he carried out the attack in retribution for the death of former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah.
Verifying developments in the tribal regions is very difficult. The Pakistan army and the United States are believed to have a network of informants there, but many places are under effective militant control. There are few independent journalists working there.
Hakimullah has been reported dead at least twice before, once in an alleged power struggle following the death of Baitullah. If the Taliban do not acknowledge their leader’s death, DNA testing will likely be needed to confirm it.
Pakistani intelligence officials had said that Mehsud was targeted in a U.S. drone strike against a meeting of militant commanders in South Waziristan on Jan. 14, triggering rumours that he had been injured or killed. Mehsud issued an audio tape after the strike directly denying the rumours, and his voice sounded strong.
Mehsud, who has the reputation as a particularly ruthless militant, took over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban soon after Baitullah’s death. The Pakistani Taliban stepped up its attacks after the army invaded its stronghold of South Waziristan in mid-October. More than 600 people have been killed in attacks throughout the country since the ground offensive was launched.