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Militant’s Reported Death May Strike Blow to Taliban in Pakistan

August 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The reported death of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud may present a major setback for militants seeking to destabilize Pakistan. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, and journalist Steve Coll assess the development.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all of this, we turn to Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, and Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and writer for the New Yorker. He’s the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden.”

And welcome to you both.

Mr. Ambassador, let me begin with you. How confident are you, is your government, that Baitullah Mehsud is dead?

HUSAIN HAQQANI, ambassador to the United States, Pakistan: A hundred percent certainty, Margaret, can only be achieved after DNA testing and a lot of physical evidence has been processed. But other than that, there are a lot of pointers, as a result of which most people believe that Baitullah Mehsud is, indeed, dead, and his own group has announced that.

MARGARET WARNER: And if that’s the case, how significant would that be, in terms of your government’s struggle against this militant movement?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: If Baitullah Mehsud is, indeed, dead, then that is definitely a major advance in proving Pakistan’s determination and the determination of the United States to eliminate extremists and terrorists from our region.

Of course, the death of one individual is still just the death of one individual. There are others who are part of a broader movement. And we will have to continue to make sure that we eliminate the hard-line irreconcilable elements and that we reach out to those that we can reconcile at some point in the future.

But the fact remains that the Pakistani authorities have now shown their determination in Swat. We have fought effectively the terrorists there. And if Baitullah Mehsud is, indeed, dead, then his followers will certainly feel this as a major setback.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve, turning to you, how big a deal is this, do you think it is? How significant a figure was Baitullah Mehsud? And what made him so?

STEVE COLL, New America Foundation: He was a significant figure, one of the most important leaders of the resistance to the Pakistani state and to the United States, particularly in South Waziristan, his home territory, and among his people, the Mehsud tribal confederation.

What made him distinctive was, he was able to organize a pretty broad and vicious coalition, and he was ruthless himself. He ordered murders without remorse. He has a lot of blood on his hands, by all accounts, not just that of Benazir Bhutto, but hundreds of traditional tribal leaders and others who sought to oppose him.

So, between 2005 and the present, he was able more than other leaders in that region to organize an effective and violent movement. He will be replaced. Whether his successor will be as effective in those ways as he was, we’ll have to see.

The Taliban in Pakistan

Husain Haqqani
Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington
Baitullah Mehsud brought a new dimension to the Islamist militant movement.

MARGARET WARNER: And explain what the Pakistani Taliban is, what its aims are, and how much of a threat it is to the Pakistani state.

STEVE COLL: Well, it announced itself in December 2007, and Baitullah Mehsud was part of the unveiling, and it essentially is a confederation of like-minded Islamist revolutionaries who seek the overthrow of the constitutional order in Pakistan and its replacement by a Sharia-defined regime of their own making.

And it's evolved into a guerrilla movement, a terrorist movement. It has popular and political aspects. It has violent, narrow, terrorist aspects, as well. And it is also tied up with criminal rackets, which is one of the ways it's funded itself.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Ambassador, would you say that the Pakistani government welcomes this development?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Well, let me just say that, under Muslim custom, you never welcome the death even of an enemy. You do not comment on the death in terms of a celebration in any way.

But the fact remains that the elimination of anyone who has ordered murder in our country, who is responsible for terrorist acts, who has violated the constitution and the law of Pakistan with impunity is certainly going to advance the cause of bringing peace and stability to northwestern Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And you are a student of the militant movement and the Islamic militant movement. What do you think made him a leader? He was a relatively young man.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Well, Baitullah Mehsud brought a new dimension to the Islamist militant movement. We must understand that there are differences between Islamists who want Islamic law and are willing to participate in political processes to attain their objectives and militants. And then, among militants also, there are the ruthless militants who are connected to al-Qaida with global objectives, and there are militants who have local objectives.

Baitullah Mehsud fell in between. What he did was he used international rhetoric, anti-American rhetoric, rhetoric against Pakistan's various neighbors, and others perceived by Muslims as having caused grievances for Muslims. And at the same time, he operated by rallying his own tribe.

So he tried a new model, connections with other networks, but a network that is essentially tied by his own tribe. And so he was very effective because of being able to draw on other networks, while at the same time using his own network for great effect.

Threat to U.S. interests

Steve Coll
The New America Foundation
And by seeking to destabilize Pakistan, [Baitullah Mehsud] was judged by the United States government to be working against American interests. For all those reasons, he was seen as an enemy of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Steve, connect the dots here now between him and the United States. In what way would he be considered a threat to U.S. interests? And also, how closely tied was he to al-Qaida?

STEVE COLL: Well, he clearly collaborated with elements of al-Qaida in the period after their retreat from Afghanistan across the border after 2001.

MARGARET WARNER: And may I just interrupt? Was he involved, for instance -- didn't his group shelter al-Qaida leaders?

STEVE COLL: They're accused of that by the government of the United States. That's why he had a $5 million reward on his head, in addition to the reward placed by the Pakistani government. It was for his collaboration with al-Qaida; that's why he was seen as an enemy of the United States.

He also facilitated attacks against American soldiers across the border in Afghanistan, and he targeted Western facilities in Pakistan. And by seeking to destabilize Pakistan, he was judged by the United States government to be working against American interests. For all those reasons, he was seen as an enemy of the United States.

But his collaborations with al-Qaida -- I think the ambassador said it well -- were peculiar to his region in South Waziristan and to the relationship between his Mehsud tribe and Uzbek and some other Arab elements of al-Qaida.

We're not clear -- I'm not clear, anyway -- on how close he was to the senior leadership of al-Qaida, to Osama bin Laden and others. He clearly collaborated with some parts of the organization, but he -- there are other Islamist leaders along that border who also have ties to al-Qaida and who are only his allies, not his subordinates.

Pakistani compliance

Husain Haqqani
Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington
All I can say is that Pakistan and the United States do cooperate. And in this particular instance, it is our cooperation that has brought the results that are being reported right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, I have to ask you about persistent reports that, though your government has publicly complained about these CIA drone attacks on Pakistani territory, that, in fact, your government actually urged the U.S. government to add Baitullah Mehsud, essentially, to its target list, not just to go after al-Qaida figures or figures directly involved against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but, in fact, because he was such a threat to the stability of your state and causing such havoc, that you all wanted him added to the list. Is that the case?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Well, Margaret, I don't think that that is a question I am in a position to answer. All I can say is that Pakistan and the United States do cooperate. And in this particular instance, it is our cooperation that has brought the results that are being reported right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying your cooperation did, in fact, lead to this strike and others?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: I am not going to go into the technical details of the strike, because for me that is not the story. I know it's a story for you. But for me, the story is the big picture. And the big picture is that Pakistan and the United States worked together to eliminate terrorism and extremism from our part of the world.

MARGARET WARNER: And picking up on something you said a little earlier -- that, of course, this struggle would continue -- can you share with us any information your government has about what you think his demise, Mehsud's demise, would mean to the effectiveness of the rather potent group that he did head?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Well, Mehsud was, as you have already said, a charismatic leader. He also had become a recognized figure. His name had become a household word. So in those senses, his elimination will definitely have some impact on his group as a charismatic leader, as demise does for any such group.

But at the same time, of course, they will try and regroup, find a new leader. He may not be as effective. And then we will have to see how the various allies work with the new leadership and how the followers respond to the new leadership. Does the new leader have the same capabilities, negative capabilities that Baitullah Mehsud had?

So it's not the end, but it's certainly an important event in the struggle against extremism and terrorism in our part of the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, Steve Coll.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Web site, newshour.pbs.org, teachers and parents can use a lesson plan on governments negotiating with the Taliban.