In the latest round of the ongoing blood feud between the US military/intelligence agencies and the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), it appears that the TTP’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by a Predator drone attack in mid-January. The assassination was apparently in “revenge” for the murder of seven CIA operatives at a forward operating base in Afghanistan by Hakimullah’s associate and Jordanian double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. Of course, Al-Balawi had claimed that his suicide bombing was in retaliation for the assassination of the former leader of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, by a CIA drone in August 2009. The US and Pakistan targeted Baitullah Mehsud because he was allegedly behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and a series of suicide bombings and armed attacks in Pakistan. Baitullah had claimed that his attacks were only in retaliation for US drone attacks facilitated by the American puppet regime in Pakistan… Thus the origins of this blood feud recede into a murky history of drone attacks and suicide bombing counter-attacks.
To understand the feud, one needs to appreciate that the relatively precise and virtually unstoppable suicide bomber is considered the military equivalent of the predator drone in the eyes of the Taliban. Hence, there is a cycle of carnage unleashed with each drone attack.
So who was this latest target, Hakimullah Mehsud? Should his death be considered a significant victory in the war?
Haikmullah (also known as Zulfiqar; real name: Jamshed) Mehsud was reportedly first captured and interrogated by Western forces (either NATO or CIA) in the Shawal district of North Waziristan in a raid on March 9th, 2007 according to Pakistani and Chinese media agencies. The illegal incursion by two military helicopters into Pakistani territory led to the ritualized faint murmurs of protest and indignation from the Pakistani government. NATO would later deny any involvement in the kidnapping without denying that the incident may have happened. At the time, Hakimullah was merely known as a cousin and confidante of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the TTP. Through an apparent “catch and release” policy for junior terrorists, Hakimullah was let go.
Although he was most likely illiterate, the young and handsome (in a swashbuckling, Captain Jack Sparrow-ish sort of way) Mehsud became a spokesman for the TTP organization. He appeared on a local news station (Khyber News) in October 2008 to refute rumors of the death of his cousin. He then transferred from the Taliban’s communications desk to become a commander in the field. By November 2008, he rose to become the head of the Taliban in the Orakzai, Khyber, and Kurram Agencies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). However, even as he rose in the ranks of the Taliban, he continued to hold press conferences and grant interviews to local journalists — a sharp contrast with his introverted cousin, Baitullah. The brash commander particularly enjoyed showing off the Humvee he had captured from NATO forces by raiding their supply lines.
Despite his oddly charming personality, it was clear that Hakimullah was also ruthless. He claimed to have had several men beheaded for spying on the Taliban. He instituted a strict interpretation of sharia’ and enforced a ban on the movement of women outside of their homes in the Orakzai Agency.
The first attempt by the US to kill Hakimullah with a Predator drone was in April 2009. In revenge for this failed attempt, Mehsud unleashed a wave of suicide attacks and threatened that there would be at least two suicide bombings per week in retaliation.
Hakimullah was appointed to head the TTP network by a shura (council) after the assassination of his cousin by a drone in August 2009. Notably, Hakimullah held a press conference flanked by his new lieutenants to announce his promotion and he vowed to avenge the drone attack … a vow that his associate, al-Balawi, helped him to fulfill on the last day of 2009. Hakimullah would live for only one more month as American drones narrowed in on him.
At the end of the day the short three year career of the brash and ruthless Mehsud is relatively inconsequential in the broader war. The contrast between Hakimullah and his predecessor only illustrates the wide range of personality types which can assume a leadership position within the Taliban. The skill set Hakimullah used to lead the Taliban organization in the field were not particularly unique or demanding — he was little more than an illiterate, brutal, and narcissistic gangster.
When the camera pans back from the current assassination, it is clear the overall US strategy of leadership decapitation has failed to make a noticeable dent in the operational capacity of the organizations and networks that call themselves the Taliban. If anything, the Taliban appear to be growing bolder on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. For each commander who is killed, a new leader will rise and take his place after a short period of disorganization. The Pakistani government and media hypes each new leader (while selectively ignoring other militant “assets”), transforming a small fish into a whale; the leader comes to the attention of American forces which begin plotting an assassination with the assistance of Pakistani officials and local informants. After a few failed attempts and some collateral damage, which embitters the local population and helps to recruit more militants, the US usually succeeds in bringing down their man. The Americans trump their kill as a success in the war. Unfortunately, very little is actually accomplished as the cycle resets with each successful assassination, the structural positions are re-loaded, and the game begins again.
A leadership decapitation strategy only makes sense when one is confronted with a highly centralized organization led by a small number of capable leaders and a mass of fighters with low morale — this is clearly not the situation of the organizations and networks targeting Americans and their client regimes in South Asia. The US military and intelligence community continues to confuse a policy of revenge killings for a viable military strategy to defeat a broad based and conscious rebellion.