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Baitullah Is Dead, Taliban Infighting a Myth

5:29 PM, Aug 25, 2009 • By BILL ROGGIO
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Finally, after weeks of speculation about whether Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud is dead or alive, the Pakistani Taliban has confirmed he was indeed killed. Two Taliban leaders named Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud phoned the AP and other news services to state Baitullah died from wounds suffered in the Predator attack.

Hakeemullah and Waliur phoned the press from the same room, and both also confirmed that Hakeemullah was the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban. This put a dent in authoritative reports from the Pakistani government, which insisted the Taliban were openly battling each other and that the two commanders killed each other in a shootout at a meeting to choose Baitullah's successor. Now that the dead have spoken and professed mutual admiration for each other, the Pakistani government is taking a page straight from the X-files and is claiming Hakeemullah's twin brother is pretending to be the new leader.

Baitullah's death is a victory for the Pakistani government as well as the U.S. Predator campaign, which has been much maligned as being incapable of effectively killing senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. Baitullah is about as big as it gets, and his death will be held up as a reason to keep the program in operation.

Don't expect much to change from the Pakistani Taliban under Hakeemullah. He has maintained that he will continue to conduct attacks inside Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. He's an effective military commander but it remains to be seen if he can keep the patchwork Taliban groups throughout Pakistan's northwest united. Given that Hakeemullah's chief rival openly endorsed his leadership, it shouldn't be a problem in the short term. And al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have a vested interest in seeing the Pakistani Taliban remain united.

The real thing to watch over the short term is the Pakistani government and military's reaction. They've signaled they have no intention of meaningfully going into South Waziristan to take on the Taliban head on until sometime next year. If the Taliban was in such disarray, the military should have taken advantage of the confusion in the Taliban ranks and moved in for the kill. That the military never did so indicates the Taliban wasn't as divided as we've been told.