Reports of the death of the insurgent leader Baitullah Mehsud in an American drone missile strike in Waziristan are the most heartening dispatches to come out of Pakistan in some time. Mehsud's death is still to be officially confirmed. And reports of his demise in the past have proved premature. But if they do turn out to be accurate, this is an encouraging development in the struggle to stabilise Pakistan.
Mehsud was responsible for ordering a wave of suicide bombing attacks in the country. And he is widely believed to have been behind the assassination of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007. Mehsud had declared war on the Pakistani state and his hands were stained with the blood of hundreds of innocent civilians. There is also evidence that he aided al-Qai'da, allowing the group to set up its operational headquarters in his Waziristan stronghold.
Mehsud's death is unlikely to mean the end of the Taliban insurgency. There will, in all likelihood, be others who come forward to take his place. But it will, nonetheless, be a significant blow for the Taliban in Pakistan to lose its commander and chief strategist. There are already signs of splits among the group's various factions. Fighting broke out yesterday between Mehsud's men and those belonging to another militant, Turkistan Bitani, in the south Waziristan gateway town of Tank. Further tension could well follow.
But the most encouraging aspect of this operation is that it constitutes further evidence that the Pakistani state is now fully behind US efforts to root out the Taliban and prevent it from providing a safe haven for both its Afghan counterpart and al-Qa'ida.
Islamabad still officially opposes US drone strikes, arguing that they are an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty, but, reading between the lines, it is pretty clear that the two countries are now co-operating on targeting. The US has been mounting drone attacks for five years on the Pakistan/Afghan border without any top-level insurgent leaders being eliminated. This week's breakthrough is likely to have resulted from better human intelligence from the Pakistanis. Islamabad was certainly not complaining about the method of Mehsud's reported elimination yesterday. Indeed, they have been gunning for him since they ordered a full-scale assault on his network in July.
The penny appears to have dropped in Pakistan about the nature of the Taliban threat. There is a growing realisation that the insurgents are not an "asset" in the overarching struggle against India, but a threat to the very stability of the country. The circulation of a video in April showing a teenage girl being lashed by the Taliban in the Swat Valley, after a disastrous government truce with militants was agreed there, outraged mainstream Pakistani opinion. And the advance of the Taliban in to the Buner Valley, just 70 miles from Islamabad, that same month shook ministers and officials out of the complacent belief that the militant threat could be safely contained.
Last month, the Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari made a candid admission, saying "the terrorists of today were the heroes of yesteryear until 9/11 occurred and they began to haunt us as well". If recognition of a problem is the first step to solving it, there might, finally, be cause for cautious optimism about Pakistan's future.Reuse content