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Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

THE details are fascinating: a sultry night in South Waziristan, that remote inaccessible tribal region on Pakistans border with Afghanistan; an ailing Taliban leader out on the roof of his father-in-laws house to get some fresh air, possibly with a drip attached; the wife, the younger of his two spouses, massaging away the pain in his legs; a Predator drone circling the dark skies overhead locking on to the couple as it prepares to fire its deadly missiles.

This, reports say, is how the 32-year-old Beithullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban who, according to the government, was the man behind the unceasing suicide attacks and other terrorist strikes in the country, met his end in the pre-dawn hours of August 5 in a remote village in the countrys border badlands. His wife, whom he is reported to have wed recently because his first wife failed to bear him sons, was also said to have perished in the strike.

No sooner had the first reports of his death started emerging two days after the missile strike than doubts began to be expressed in various quarters about their veracity, as is the case with any information coming from Pakistans tribal areas. South Waziristan, the strongest of Taliban strongholds in the tribal area adjoining Afghanistan, is out of bounds for the government and the security forces. Journalists, too, have no access. First-hand information on the missile strike was absent.

Some members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) confirmed the news; others denied it. The Pakistan government, which said its intelligence agencies had picked up the information of Beithullahs death, was cautious for a change and stopped short of confirming the killing.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carries out the drone attacks, but the United States has never directly confirmed them. On this occasion, too, it said nothing about the strike itself, although several officials in the Obama administration said they were getting reports that Beithullah was dead.

More confusion was to follow. While the world waited for the TTP to announce a successor to Beithullah following a meeting of its shura , or council, there were reports, fuelled by Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik, that this meeting had ended in a bloody battle between claimants for the throne. According to the reports, Hakimullah Mehsud, a young Taliban warlord with his own militia in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber agencies, who was widely tipped to take over the leadership of the TTP, was possibly killed in a shootout with another contender, Wali-ur-Rehman. Some reports said Wali-ur-Rehman too was dead. The Interior Minister told reporters that there were intelligence reports about a shootout at the shura and that one of the two potential successors to Beithullah was dead, but he did not say which one. A day after this, Western news agencies and the BBC reported getting phone calls from first Wali-ur-Rehman and then from Hakimullah Mehsud to announce that the reports of their deaths were exaggerated and that both they and their boss Beithullah were alive.

It was clear from all this that the government and the Taliban were engaged in a not-so-subtle propaganda war, that too through Pakistani and Western independent media. But the growing consensus within Pakistan and outside was that Beithullah Mehsud, the short, stocky man who had held the country to ransom with his school for suicide bombers and his threats of terrorist attacks all across the country since mid-2007, was dead. In his characteristic plainspeak, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told journalists during a visit to Pakistan that it seemed that there is now one bad person less in Pakistan.

The fate of Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman was not clear although the delay in appointing a successor did point to some serious differences between the claimants to the title. It was a pointer to the fractious and diverse nature of the alliance of the Taliban groups that Beithullah led and successfully held together for more than a year and a half.

It was precisely to keep a lid on these differences that the organisation seemed to be putting off the announcement of Beithullahs death until the succession line became clear. Not surprisingly, the longer it was taking to find a successor, the more apparent became the disarray within. Infighting broke out in Hakimullahs group in Orakzai a couple of days after his death was reported, while pro- and anti-Beithullah Taliban slugged it out for supremacy in the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) Tank area. The confusion within also seems to be one reason why there was no backlash from the TTP to avenge Beithullahs killing. At least not yet.

Beithullah Mehsud took over the leadership of the Mehsud militants in 2004 after the death of his rival Abdullah Mehsud. A veteran of the Afghan war, Beithullah is believed to have been propped up by the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, who saw in him a valuable link inside Pakistan. In 2005, the Pakistan Army concluded a peace agreement with him, pretty much giving him the run of South Waziristan in return for his commitment that his men would refrain from carrying out attacks on the Pakistan military. The agreement fell through when the attacks continued. But the first time he shot to prominence was in 2007 when he took 250 Frontier Corps personnel, including officers, hostage in the South Waziristan area. This was his first big operational success after his declaration of war against the Pakistani state in the wake of the July 2007 commando operation against militants in Islamabads Lal Masjid.

Months later, in December that year, several Taliban groups came together and named him their leader. By the end of that month, Benazir Bhutto was dead, killed in a gun-and-suicide attack, and the Pervez Musharraf government named Beithullah as the mastermind behind her assassination. Her Pakistan Peoples Party, though, appeared disinclined to believe the story Interior Minister Malik gave him a clean chit blaming instead Musharraf and three others in his regime for her tragic death.

Although it was clear that he was behind the several terrorist attacks that Pakistan witnessed through 2008 and 2009, including the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott last September, the Pakistan Army seemed unable to make up its mind about him. On the one hand, it expressed frustration that the U.S. drones would target only Afghan Taliban leaders sheltered inside Pakistani territory, even engendering the suspicion that the U.S. was playing a double game at destabilising Pakistan through Beithullah. On the other, it was reluctant to take him on.

In June 2008, just after launching an operation in South Waziristan, the Army seemed close to signing another peace agreement with him. Following the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lt. General Shuja Pasha, even described him as a patriot who was ready to fight India alongside the Pakistan Army.

After the Obama administration took over in the U.S., the drones started targeting Beithullahs strongholds. This was the reason the TTP gave as it claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the Manawan police training school in Lahore in March, and later the bombing of the ISI regional office along with the offices of a police emergency service in the same city.

The U.S. announced $5 million for information leading to his capture, dead or alive. In June, midway through the anti-Taliban operations in Swat, Pakistan declared Beithullah the countrys enemy no. 1 and offered a Rs.50-million bounty for his capture. By then, the country was also awash with conspiracy theories that Beithullah was an Indian agent and that he was bent on destabilising Pakistan at the behest of the Indian intelligence agencies, which were providing him both money and arms.

The Pakistan Army began talking of an operation in South Waziristan, similar to the one in Swat, and when two former aides of Beithullah turned against him, giving interviews to the effect that he was an Indian agent, it was clear that the government was propping them up and preparing the ground for an imminent attack on his tribal stronghold.

Even at that stage, Beithullah seemed to be more than a match for the government. He made short work of Qari Zainuddin, one of the two pro-government Taliban militants speaking out against him. That sent the other one, Turkistan Bhittani, underground. The Pakistan Armys plans to take the battle into South Waziristan seemed to have been put on the back burner. The American media reported that once again it seemed as if the Pakistan Army might do a peace deal with Beithullah.

His apparent death in the August 5 air strike is seen as the result of intelligence cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S. Such cooperation has long been reported as an important element of the increasingly precise drone attacks even though Pakistans public posture is one of censure and condemnation of the U.S. policy of carrying out missile strikes inside its territory.

Despite the doubts that surround the death of Beithullah, the news was mostly greeted by terror-weary Pakistanis with some relief. It may even soften the public criticism against the U.S. drone attacks even though Pakistans official position remains opposed to the incursions as counter-productive to the government efforts to combat terrorism, as they tend to increase the anti-American sentiment.

Irrespective of the official position, analysts have predicted that the Pakistan Army will now come under renewed pressure from Washington to strike while the iron is hot the CIA has done Islamabad a favour by taking out the countrys most wanted man; now it is Pakistans turn to launch a ground offensive in South Waziristan, taking advantage of the confusion within the TTP to strike a death blow at the organisation.

Although Interior Minister Malik was emphatic that Pakistan would not rest until it had dismantled the rest of the TTP, there is no indication yet if or when this will happen. One rationale offered in the Pakistani media for not marching into South Waziristan at this moment is that it can end up uniting the Taliban factions that have been fighting one another for supremacy since the reports of Beithullahs death.

But it does seem counter-intuitive to let go of the opportunity that Beithullahs death has presented. If the TTP manages to find an able successor to Beithullah, the organisation may rebuild itself and is certain to come back at the government. However, Holbrooke, on a visit to Pakistan in the second week of August, made it clear that the U.S. was not out to push for an operation in South Waziristan.

That is a decision for the Pakistan government to make and to make alone, he said. Were not going to come here to give tactical advice to the Pakistan Army. They can take care of their problems themselves.

In any case, Beithullahs death is not expected to have any significant impact on the war on terror in Afghanistan, as his activities had focussed on Pakistan over the last two years. For the purposes of the U.S., what will be more relevant is action against the Talibans Haqqani network, headquartered in North Waziristan.

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