The United States is nearly certain the Pakistani Taliban's leader is dead and that there now is a leadership struggle within the terrorist group, White House national security adviser James Jones said on Sunday.
Claims and counterclaims about Baitullah Mehsud's fate have swirled since a CIA missile strike last Wednesday on his father-in-law's house in Pakistan's rugged, lawless tribal area. "Mehsud was a very bad individual, a real thug," said Jones, who appeared on three Sunday talk shows. He said the US was 90 per cent confidence that Mehsud was dead.
Pakistani authorities increasingly are convinced that Mehsud is dead. Government and intelligence officials, as well as some Taliban commanders, have said all indicators point to his death, but other Taliban commanders have vehemently denied that.
Further muddying the waters, there were conflicting reports that a major fight had broken out between rival Taliban factions during a meeting, or shura, to select a replacement for Mehsud, and that one or two of the most likely contenders Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman had either been killed or wounded.
Jones said he could not confirm the fight or its outcome, but he said a leadership fight may work to US advantage. If true, the gunfight lends credence to the assertion that Mehsud, considered Pakistan's most dangerous man, had indeed been killed.
"Multiple sources are now confirming he's dead," including at least two Taliban commanders, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press. He said the reports of infighting were "one of the biggest, latest indicators."
Jones agreed, and congratulated the Pakistani military for pressing the fight against the branch of the Taliban that lives inside Pakistan. The US believes some of the worst violence in Afghanistan is directed from across the border in Pakistan. "If there is dissension in the ranks and if in fact he is, as we think, dead, this is a positive indication that in Pakistan things are turning for the better," Jones said.
He did not give details about the strike, which is part of a US policy of cross-border attacks that is deeply unpopular with the Pakistani public. The Obama administration has continued the strikes even while trying to improve both the US relationship with Pakistan's leaders and the image of the US and its fight against terrorism.
US officials regularly point out that terrorism is a large and growing danger inside Pakistan that the country's own military is best placed to combat. Jones called Mehsud "public enemy No. 1" in his own country.
Any succession battle for the top slot in Pakistan's Taliban was always likely to be brutal. Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is not a single, cohesive group. Rather, it is more a loose alliance of tribal groups that often have disputes and power struggles between each other. So taking out the man who coordinated the factions could lead to fierce rivalry over who will succeed him. It could be in the interests of top commanders to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who will replace him. Jones appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and NBC's "Meet the Press."