Andrew Buncombe: The emir is dead, but can drones end the insurgency?


One man does not a militancy make, but the killing of Baitullah Mehsud – Pakistan's most wanted man – marks a major strike in the fight against extremists. For Islamabad and Washington it may also open a window that allows them to bring other leaders of the Pakistan Taliban to their side.

The assassination of the former fitness instructor by a missile fired from a CIA drone, following as it does close on the heels of the Pakistan army's success in the Swat Valley, could scarcely have been imagined just six months ago.

Then – with Pakistan facing a wave of suicide attacks directed by Mehsud, and the former tourist haven barely 60 miles from Islamabad under the control of his Taliban allies – the momentum appeared firmly with the militants. With Mehsud now dead, parts of Swat cleared and the army pressing at the militant stronghold of South Waziristan, the balance has shifted. "It's a great boost to the morale of the security forces," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a Lahore-based analyst.

The death of the man who emerged from a lesser branch of the Mehsud tribe to be named in 2007 as the "emir" of a loose coalition of militant groups known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) undoubtedly leaves a vacuum.

While his image as public enemy number one may have been partly created by the US and Pakistani governments, the man who refused to allow his face to be photographed was more than just a figurehead. He was both a skilled tactician and a ruthless leader ready to strike against both "enemy targets" and potential rivals. Earlier this year an assassin dispatched by Mehsud killed Qari Zainuddin, another Taliban leader trying to position himself as a challenger.

He was also a consummate networker of militant groups. Several attacks carried out earlier this year in Lahore, including the assault on a police cadet academy for which Mehsud claimed responsibility, involved extremists from the Punjab – something that revealed a perilous militant nexus between the tribal areas and the country's heartland.

Mehsud's death may be followed by a wave of revenge attacks – just as the siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque in the summer of 2007 and the death of its militant cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi led to a spate of such assaults by Mehsud and his followers. Farzana Shaikh, a fellow at Chatham House and author of Making Sense of Pakistan, said: "Taliban groups may well want to exact revenge for Mehsud's death.That could mean ... a new wave of terrorist attacks against security forces and vulnerable targets in the capital, Islamabad, and elsewhere in the country's major urban centres."

At the same time, his killing may allow an opportunity for Pakistan to reach out to other Taliban elements who may previously have felt obliged to offer fealty to Mehsud. The army and the security services have already been trying this tactic with varying levels of success.

Certainly, the assassination has renewed attention on the US policy of drone strikes. Publicly condemned but privately supported by Pakistan, such strikes have markedly increased since Barack Obama came to office with a new policy of targeting not just militants responsible for cross-border raids in Afghanistan but those who threatened havoc within Pakistan and, as a result,the wider region. It was this switch in tactics that directly led to Mehsud's killing.

His death means there will no let-up in such strikes. Whomever is selected to succeed the militant leader will be very aware that they too could face a similar fate.