Fact: a missile strike destroyed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud father-in-law’s house in Zanghora, South Waziristan, on 5 August 2009. Fact: no one knows for sure if Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief was either killed or injured in the blast, his second wife reportedly did not survive the attack. Since then, various contradictory statements have been made by US officials, Pakistani intelligence and Taliban commanders to confirm or invalidate Mehsud’s death. It was US media sources that first issued reports two days after the strike saying Mehsud might have been among the dead in Zanghora. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was the first Pakistani official to express the government’s feeling that Baitullah was killed on Wednesday, based on a phone call made by one of his aides. This was followed by Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s speech to the National Assembly on Monday, quoting intelligence reports to better illustrate this point. Yet, neither the Governement nor the Taliban have been able to produce any material evidence that TTP’s charismatic leader is either dead or alive.
“Time will reveal the truth” most Pakistani commentators say. But patience will be required here, for one cannot step in South Waziristan to confirm the facts so easily. Thus Malik’s statement that DNA tests may be conducted to prove Mehsud is dead, remains questionable. The likelihood of seeing the body of TTP leader – if proved to be deceased – is decreasing each day and observers may have to be content with the mere absence of Mehsud’s leadership in the future to corroborate the government’s claims. This is not the first time that the TTP leader has been reported seriously ill or dead, but the last episode in late September 2008 did not see any fighting among major Taliban figures following the news, and this perhaps may be the best indicator so far that Mehsud actually is dead.
Indeed, the rumour around the fate of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s appointed man in Pakistan has been followed by other reports, much more relevant to this extent than the simple proclamation of Mehsud’s death. Again, both governmental sources and Taliban factions opposed to Mehsud’s leadership have been keen on reporting to newspapers last Sunday that fighting erupted between Baitullah’s deputy Hakimullah Mehsud and TTP senior commander Waliur Rehman, allegedly leaving several dead and wounding TTP suicide bomber mastermind Qari Husain. Though long-time TTP internal opponent Haji Turkistan Bittani appeared eager to proclaim all of Baitullah’s close associates were left dead in the quarrel, Interior Minister Rehman Malik refers to intelligence sources to affirm one out of the two potential successors to Baitullah’s reign was killed in the shootout. Yet, Waliur Rehman called a Reuters reporter on Sunday denying the claims there had ever been a shooting or that a special meeting was held to consider any new change in the TTP’s functioning.
Beyond the question of the game being played by both the Pakistani government and the Taliban over the information given out, several major questions arise. First being the issue of the TTP’s Rs 3 billion wealth in both funds and ammunitions, and the fight over it. Baitullah is reported to have built a considerable financial system, from real investments in Dubaï to robberies and abductions, in Punjab or Gulf states accounts, thus allowing him to cope with the major expenditures of the movement. This also allowed him to buy the allegiance of a force estimated to be 20 to 30.000 fighters strong, whose salaries represent Rs 600 million a year. For whoever takes the lead, money matters will come first and tribal commitment will come second, since the new leader will need to guarantee a certain continuity in the payment of the wages to prevent further discord.
In addition, the potential death of Baitullah Mehsud in a missile strike does not end the debate about whether Pakistan should condemn US drone attacks or embrace them. Interior Minister Malik has already stated to journalist Hamid Mir that “even if Baitullah Mehsud is killed, I condemn US drone attacks in Pakistan.” The Pakistani opposition, usually rather keen on condemning the US attacks, remained silent in parliament on Monday. In fact, no one knows exactly if Mehsud’s death should be celebrated as such. Two contradictory feelings are fighting each other: the sense that the Pakistani government got rid of its most serious contestant and troublemaker, and the fear of “what next”? We can only but agree with Hamid Mir that Pakistan should learn from its own security policy mistakes for Baitullah Mehsud was a product of the state. Unfortunately, such elements are still available for the Taliban, and there is much less to hope than to fear of the new TTP.