The unconfirmed death of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in an attack by a US drone aircraft brings both Pakistan and the US off the ropes and back into the game. For the Taliban, Mehsud’s alleged death could not have come at a worse time. It was his towering presence that held together the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a loose and fragile confederation of leaders, not all whom were happy with his leadership. His death will bring into the open old rivalries and animosities. This new development could also change the complexion of the Afghanistan elections slated for August 20.
In the post-Mehsud phase, the fractious Taliban will take some time to re-group. This means that one major irritant for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking re-election, has been neutralised for the moment. Forces in the Pakistani establishment that had propped up Mehsud will be too busy trying to ensure a smooth succession to be able to do damage to Karzai. The test for Karzai now lies in managing this crucial time to his advantage and stitching together a viable coalition, albeit of disparate forces. Even those sympathetic to Mehsud within Pakistan will be constrained to remain mute given his suspected involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
India has wisely kept out of this which explains why no one has been able to point fingers at New Delhi. But, it would be premature to write the Taliban off. The Mullah Omar brand to which Mehsud owed loyalty is till strong and the organisation has demonstrated surprising resilience in the past. It could well try and launch a spectacular strike to show that it is still in the game. Mehsud’s killing gives both Pakistan and the US a psychological advantage and is likely to result in greater cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the two. Though drone attacks had been criticised for the number of civilian casualties, the latest success will see an increase in them. But both Pakistan and the US must resist from triumphalism and try and follow up this development with some engagement with the populace, many of whom do not want to prolong these hostilities. If the Pakistan government can use this opportunity to retake areas of Swat Valley captured by the Taliban and keep up the pressure on the militants, the war against terrorism could just be winnable. But it all depends on how effectively Washington, Islamabad and, to a lesser extent, Kabul are able to seize this moment and build on it.