The head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in an American drone strike in northern Pakistan late last week. Mehsud can now be added to an impressive list of senior terrorists killed in the U.S. drone war. But how effective are such decapitation strikes?
While necessary, killing top terrorists alone is not enough to contain the growth of al Qaeda-affiliated groups. There are many willing and able terrorists waiting to take Hakimullah’s place. The Pakistani Taliban’s own history shows that it will overcome the most recent blow.
Hakimullah’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was similarly killed in a U.S. drone strike in August 2009. In the more than four years since, the threat from the Pakistani Taliban has hardly abated. In May 2010, the group claimed credit for the failed bombing in Times Square. Luckily, the bomb fizzled, failing to cause any casualties. Still, the operation showed that the Pakistani Taliban could infiltrate a terrorist into the heart of New York City undetected until he had almost carried out his mission.
Most of the Pakistani Taliban’s assets are devoted to waging an insurgency along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, as well as striking targets inside Pakistan. In recent years, these efforts have undoubtedly strengthened the group’s hand.
In October, American forces captured one of Hakimullah’s chief deputies, Latif Mehsud, in Afghanistan. The capture greatly angered the Afghan government for a shocking reason: The Afghans had been negotiating with Latif Mehsud and the Pakistani Taliban in the hopes of striking an alliance.
In the nasty proxy war of South Asia, Karzai’s government hoped to use the Pakistani Taliban as a check against the Pakistani government, which has long used its own proxies (including the Afghan Taliban) to wage an insurgency inside Afghanistan.
The details of this effort were reported by The New York Times just days before Hakimullah was killed. “After months of negotiations,” the Afghan government agreed it “would not harass Pakistan Taliban fighters sheltering in mountains along the border if the insurgents did not attack Afghan forces.”
The negotiations stalled with Latif Mehsud’s capture, but this story is an ominous sign of things to come.
The Pakistani Taliban is closely allied with al Qaeda, and provides al Qaeda operatives with safe haven in northern Pakistan. The two groups also work hand-in-glove in operations. The State Department has publicly recognized the organization’s “symbiotic relationship” with al Qaeda.
Yet, despite the Pakistani Taliban’s widely-recognized relationship with al Qaeda and threat to the U.S. homeland, Karzai’s government desires an alliance with the group.
This says as much about American weakness in the region, especially with the coming drawdown in forces, as it does the Pakistani Taliban’s strength.
Hakimullah’s death surely weakens his organization. But the Pakistani Taliban will fight on and other leaders will rise to take his place. Perhaps they will not be as effective and disagreements over who ascends to the top spot could cause problems within the organization. But the Pakistani Taliban, like al Qaeda, has a deep bench.
Press reporting indicates that 60 members of the Pakistani Taliban’s elite shura council have met to discuss Hakimullah’s replacement, with a spokesman for the group saying that an interim leader has already been named.
In the wake of Baitullah Mehsud’s death in 2009, the Pakistani Taliban nearly launched a mass casualty terrorist attack in New York and continued its prolific operations inside its home region. Incredibly, the group has become strong enough to enter into a possible alliance with the Afghan government.
Hakimullah’s death is a win in the fight against terrorism, but a tactical one at best.
The Pakistani Taliban will fight on.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.