Reports of the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah
Mehsud demonstrate that cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan
against militants located in the tribal border areas is beginning
to bear fruit. Although U.S. officials have not yet confirmed the
demise of Mehsud, several senior Taliban leaders and Pakistan's
foreign minister have declared he was killed by a U.S. drone
missile strike in South Waziristan on Wednesday. If it was indeed
successful, this strike represents the culmination of a campaign
targeting Mehsud and his forces, an effort that has reportedly been
facilitated by Pakistani intelligence.
In addition to continuing military cooperation--especially these
highly effective drone attacks against militants--the U.S. and
Pakistan must work together to implement economic development
programs and political reforms, particularly in Pakistan's tribal
areas, that are critical to long-term success in the struggle
A Boon for the Pakistani and
International Fight against Terrorism
The elimination of Mehsud would constitute a significant victory
for Pakistan's fight against terrorism, especially coming so
closely on the heels of the Pakistani military's ousting of
pro-Taliban forces from the Swat Valley in the settled areas of the
North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Although many internally
displaced persons remain fearful of returning to the Swat Valley,
the Pakistani military operations there received widespread public
support, and both the Pakistani military and civilian leadership
appear determined to prevent the militants from returning to the
Mehsud's death could also change the debate about the use of
drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal border areas, thereby helping to
quell public anger over the U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism
partnership. In the past, Pakistani officials have denounced U.S.
missile attacks in the tribal areas as counterproductive. The
elimination of Mehsud, however, would make it difficult for
Pakistanis to argue that the drones are not improving security in
their own country, given that he was reportedly responsible for
dozens of suicide bombings over the last 18 months that have killed
several hundred Pakistani civilians and security personnel as well
as the wife of current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and
political icon Benazir Bhutto.
Over the last several months, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has
been fraught with tension and frustration, particularly over the
issue of Pakistani peace deals with militants. Tensions came to a
head in mid-April when the Taliban moved from the Swat Valley into
neighboring Buner district just one week after President Zardari
approved a peace agreement with militants occupying the Swat
Valley. Most observers believe that by moving into districts
outside the Swat Valley, the militants overplayed their hand and
revealed their long-term intentions of expanding influence
throughout the NWFP. Pakistanis living outside of the northwest
province had previously believed the Taliban's activities could be
contained within the tribal areas and Swat Valley. A video that
circulated in the Pakistani national media in early April showing
Taliban leaders whipping a young girl also helped turn Pakistani
public opinion against the militants.
Though the death of Mehsud will likely provide a morale boost
for the Pakistani security forces and public, overcoming the
broader threat from militancy in Pakistan will be a long-term task.
The government has declared most of the Swat Valley region cleared
of Taliban fighters. However, the Pakistan military will have to
remain in the region until the civilian government is able to
re-establish its writ, build up democratic institutions, and prove
it is capable of delivering basic services to the people or face
the prospect of the Taliban's re-emergence in the region.
The rise of Mehsud itself provides a cautionary tale for those
who support negotiating peace deals with militants from a position
of weakness. The Pakistani government's peace deal with Mehsud in
2005 gave him the space to strengthen his position in South
Waziristan and boosted his legitimacy, allowing him to attract more
Mehsud's death would also be a fillip for international
counterterrorism efforts. Mehsud is suspected of being behind a
10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting
suicide attacks in Spain. There is no public record of his direct
involvement in plots against the U.S. homeland, but he threatened
to launch an attack in Washington last April. Mehsud's forces also
cooperate closely with the al-Qaeda leadership and provide
protection for al-Qaeda bases and training camps in South
Waziristan. He also pledged his allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader
Mullah Omar last February.
A Long Struggle
U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal border areas have been
effective in disrupting al-Qaeda's activities and its ability to
plan and train for attacks in Afghanistan and across the globe.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that the campaign of
sustained drone attacks in Pakistan that began about a year ago
have led to greater success against al-Qaeda and its affiliates
than any other tactic employed since 9/11.
However, drone attacks alone will not degrade the terrorist
threat emanating from this region over the long term. Militant
leaders can always be replaced. Achieving long-term gains against
the terrorist threat in Pakistan will require:
- Comprehensive military action by Pakistani security forces to
establish government authority in the region;
- Joint U.S.-Pakistan efforts to provide economic development and
job opportunities; and
- The institution of Pakistani political reforms that seek to
incorporate the semi-autonomous border regions into the Pakistani
Efforts to significantly increase U.S. economic aid to Pakistan
over the next decade and to create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones
near the border areas that would allow Pakistani goods U.S.
duty-free access are currently under review by the U.S. Congress.
Such measures would go a long way toward solidifying the
Moreover, these steps could facilitate change in the political
and economic dynamics of the Pakistani border regions by creating
economic opportunities that will help drain support for militant
activities. None of this will be possible, however, unless the U.S.
and Pakistan continue to work together with the recognition that
the militants operating along the border pose a genuine threat both
to the future of Pakistan as well as the safety and security of the
broader international community.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South
Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.