In the Arena

A Fatal Blow to the Taliban?

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The Washington Post is reporting that Pakistani experts believe Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban was probably killed in a drone strike–and that his death would be a “fatal blow” to the Taliban, coming so soon after the death of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, also in a drone attack.

To which I caution: Not so fast. First, we don’t know if the fellow is dead. Second, if he is, it’s entirely possible that the Pakistani Taliban will find another leader quickly–Hakimullah had competition for the job; there are aspirants waiting in the wings. Third, even if there is an extended power struggle and the movement has been seriously weakened by a combination of drone strikes and Pakistani Army operations in South Waziristan, that doesn’t mean an end to Taliban terror attacks. They will continue. The best case scenario is that the possibility of the Taliban actually launching a broad-based popular movement to overthrow the government–perhaps with the aid of some elements of the Army–has been squelched.

But the most important caveat is suggested by a quote from the military leader:

Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan’s army chief, told a group of foreign journalists Monday that with 147,000 troops deployed near the Afghan border to fight Pakistani militants, and 100,000 stationed along Pakistan’s eastern border with rival India, “almost the entire army is involved in operations. We need to train and rest.”

It is entirely possible that this whole story is an attempt by the Pakistanis to resist U.S. pressure to move the anti-Taliban fight from South Waziristan, home of the Mehsuds, to  North Waziristan, home of the Haqqanis (who, in the past, have been agents of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate–the ISI).

This raises a larger point: our gullibility when it comes to news from the region. We–on all sides of this question–tend to place more credence in news we like than news we don’t like. A few months ago, for example, the Jordanians spun a tale–reported here in Time–that their double agent who bombed the CIA station in Khost had turned because he was upset about U.S. policy in the middle east. Maybe. Or maybe the Jordanians were just trying to deflect attention from the fact that they fatally misread their double-agent. The point is, there were those, especially in the left blogosphere, who took the Jordanian spin as gospel because it reinforced their view–a legitimate view, by the way–that our presence in the region is only causing more trouble. (Neoconservatives have been spun, similarly, by reports of counter-insurgency “progress” in Helmand Province, which are very questionable because of the absence of Afghan participation in the reclaiming of neighborhoods.)

All of which is to say: If there is anything we know about news from the region, it’s that we don’t know very much. My policy is, take nothing at face value. I’m skeptical about all these reports, which is why I try to visit the war zones as often as I can. I try to base my judgments of progress or regress on hard evidence (like the decline in violent incidents that heralded the turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the spring of 2007) that is backed by a plausible rationale (the local tribes decided they didn’t like AQI’s brand of sharia). On the flip side, it was very easy to discern, when I visited Afghanistan in late 2008 and spring of 2009, that the war was not going very well there.

So, I hope Hakimullah Mehsud’s death presages the end of the Taliban threat in Pakistan. But I also hope the Pakistani Army continues its campaign against the terrorists and extends it, by going after those like the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, whom the Pakistanis supported in the past.

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