Baitullah Mehsud Is Alive! Or Dead. Hrm.

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by Joshua Foust on 8/7/2009 · 4 comments

Bill Roggio quotes his usual round anony-officials saying that Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader, wasn’t killed by yesterday’s airstrike that killed his other wife.

The New York Times, however, reports that his own men say he is dead and that they are convening a meeting to determine who becomes the next robot target. The NYT article, however contains this important caveat:

But Pakistani leaders emphasized they did not have irrefutable evidence of the killing, and it was not the first time that Mr. Mehsud has been reported dead.

Bingo. Frankly. until we see a body or something, color me skeptical.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dafydd August 7, 2009 at 6:37 am

These Islamic people (unlike many other organisations) very rarely try to hide their leaders’ deaths.

I have not seen anything from the Pakistani Taliban, if there is nothing by the end of their day, I expect he is still around, although possibly injured.

John August 7, 2009 at 10:22 am

Joshua: Thanks for your great stories. As for is he dead or alive is not the real story. What has happened that we “know” is that his wife was killed by our DRONES. This causes the beehive to be broken open with our big stick. I think that many normal people will pick up rifles now and join in defending their homeland, their small village in the mountain range. I crosspost some of your stories at my blog. I crossposted Bill’s story this morning. I just got so pissed at the civilian deaths over the years, I decided I had to do something about it. My blog is just a small way, but it satisfys my desire to do something to STOP THE KILLINGS. Thanks again for your work.

Cynic August 7, 2009 at 11:20 am


I’d suggest that you’re missing the point. It’s possible to believe, as I firmly do, that we have become overly reliant on drone strikes, that we’re too quick to employ them, that they’ve substituted for more meaningful and substantial efforts in AfPak, and that even when they succeed in hitting militants they’re generally counterproductive.

But the position you’re taking seems, to me at least, to be doctrinaire, inflexible, and manifestly wrong. There are no irreplaceable leaders among the insurgents, and very few whose death might make a meaningful impact. But Mehsud tops that list. He’s been imaginative in his tactics, and provided charismatic leadership at the head of his movement. If the early reports are true, and we killed Mehsud along with some members of his family (the term ‘civilian,’ in these circumstances, becomes problematic) then that strikes me as the extremely rare instance in which an air strike would actually have been justified and productive.

A desire to “STOP THE KILLINGS” does nothing other than secure your own moral rectitude. There are two, equal dangers here – that the killing of Mehsud will be used by proponents to justify a generally counterproductive campaign of remote strikes, and that the others killed in the strike will be seized upon by opponents to argue that all strikes are unjustified. There’s a prudent middle ground here, restricting strikes to the unusual confluence of circumstances in which the targets are genuinely high value, the confidence extremely good, and the collateral damage minimal. That requires a balancing test, not inflexible opposition.

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