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Baitullah: Dead or Alive?

10:21 AM, Aug 10, 2009 • By BILL ROGGIO
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After last week's jubilation over the purported death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, it is now starting to appear as if he survived the airstrike that killed his wife and several of his bodyguards. Five very senior Taliban leaders have come out and said Baitullah survived the attack and would issue a videotape. Several tribal leaders and politicians with close ties to Baitullah and the Paksitani Taliban have also claimed Baitullah is alive.

The reports of Baitullah's death have been largely driven by Pakistani intelligence, which is known to be suspect in past cases. Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister who is the source for many of the reports, just recently fell flat on his face when he insisted Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah was dead. The Taliban said he was alive, and Fazlullah later turned up on the radio.

Back to the Baitullah death story--a strange twist developed over the weekend. In a story too good to be true, Malik claimed that two of Baitullah's potential successors killed each other in a gun battle during a meeting to decide on his replacement. When both Taliban leaders spoke to the media and denied the meeting even took place, the wheels started falling off Malik's assertion. But that didn't stop Malik, who insisted the two commanders prove that they and Baitullah are alive.

Over the weekend I wrote about why it is likely that Baitullah is indeed alive and the purported clash at the Taliban shura probably never happened. The situation is still in flux; Baitullah may indeed be dead and the clash may have actually happened. If I'm correct, the media, which by and large has swallowed the reports from Pakistan uncritically, should do some explaining. The initial Los Angeles Times article, for instance, never questioned Rehman's version of events (the online article has since been modified).