Let’s Think About Mehsud

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by Joshua Foust on 8/7/2009 · 2 comments

Okay, he’s almost certainly dead. So will this matter all that much? When Baitullah Mehsud’s predecessor, Nek Mohammed, died in a drone strike in 2004, American policymakers thought they were onto something—targeted assassinations surely would blunt the power of the Islamists in Pakistan, right? Mehsud turned out to be a much more fearsome opponent than Mohammed. A year ago, Jeb Koogler and I disagreed, writing in the Christian Science Monitor:

Most destructive of conventional thinking is the notion that targeted assassinations of militant leaders in the FATA is an effective counterterrorism tactic. In fact, this strategy has not deterred Islamic militancy.

In 2004, directly after the signing of the first peace accord in Waziristan, the prominent militant Nek Muhammed was killed by a US strike. But his successor-to-be, Mehsud, was not cowed, vowing to continue hostilities.

Other strikes, such as those against Abu Laith al-Libi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, have been similarly ineffective in undercutting Islamic militancy. The deaths of militant leaders rarely discourage additional violence; on the contrary, there is always a successor willing to step up. Just as NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan have bolstered popular support for the Taliban, targeted assassinations in Pakistan – with the inevitable deaths of civilians that result – lead to greater sympathy for radicalism and increase grass-roots support for violence.

This afternoon, Bill Roggio listed all the Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders who have been killed at the hands of American robots. It’s quite substantial. So with this huge list of dead militants, can we say that these targeted assassinations have materially undermined the Pakistani insurgency? In order to say so, you’d have to show that things would have been worse than they are now: the insurgency would have been more violent, more widespread, more destructive of two successive governments in Islamabad.

I’m sure someone could try to make that case. But it hasn’t been, in part because it’s so complex (for example, there are simultaneous, somewhat contrasting sentiments going on at the ground level: antipathy to Taliban-led violence, along with resistance to government offensives). While Mehsud certainly had it coming to him, I wonder: will his successor actually be much more hardline, even less likely to voluntarily lay down his arms?

Update: Well at least someone is on the same page.

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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 Registan.net. 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 10, 2009 at 5:29 am

Assuming he was killed, I think insurgents generally lay down their arms for the same reason as democracies. They tire of fighting.

Most guerilla leaders are fed up by the time they get to a certain age.

If we keep killing these guys, they get replaced by younger (the young are almost always more radical than the old) less well known figures.

We just postpone the end.

AfghanAtheist August 12, 2009 at 12:15 am

Isn’t it entertaining to see the World’s only super power with all its technological might, huge military apparatus, hundreds of thousands of troops and 600k+ strong regional ally dance out of its pants at the death of yet another one of those warlords who, with only minimal resources, was a terrible pain in their side.
How many are they going to kill? There is a resourceful production line out there, that is capable of producing many more, more violent and more radical Mehsuds.

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