The allegation that a US drone strike in Waziristan killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban Movement, Baitullah Mahsud, cannot be dismissed but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. The strike on the house of Baitullah’s father-in-law, Ikramuddin, killed Baitullah’s wife. But it is now being thought that it may have killed him, too, since he was visiting and may have been upstairs. The Taliban acted suspiciously in the aftermath, throwing up a five-kilometer perimeter to keep people away. But, in the absence of an identified body or an acknowledgment by the Taliban, there is a speculative element here.
Mahsud was or is a mass murderer, and likely was behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007, as well as the blowing up of the Islamabad Marriott in fall of 2008. The Pakistani Taliban Movement that he heads or headed has by virtue of is brutality and coercion alienated most Pakistanis. Somewhat to my surprise, the Pakistani army campaign against them in the Swat Valley elicited overwhelming support from the public, which is clearly now afraid of them. Most Punjabi and Sindhi Pakistanis, the vast majority, had long said they wouldn’t want to live under Taliban rule, but they often had respected the movement for its anti-imperialist credentials. But now even the private television channels excoriate them as dangerous extremists (shiddatpasand).
But Baitullah’s death in itself would not necessarily be a turning point. Some analysts believe in the centrality of leadership cadres in insurgencies. But I’d just point out that the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq in May of 2006 had no effect whatsoever on fundamentalist guerrilla attacks in that country. The Sharon government in Israel also mounted a campaign of assassinations against Hamas leaders (including merely political and religious leaders), which had no success in weakening Hamas. Groups like Hamas and the Taliban have a complicated relationship to clans and cliques that easily survive the assassination of even an important leader.
Something like 80% of the time, the only way to defeat an insurgency is to find a political formula acceptable to it. Relatively seldom can an insurgency just be militarily overwhelmed once it has become established. Where it is defeated, isolating it from its recruiting pool is important. In that sense, the following report in Pakistan’s The Nation, depending in part on AFP, is much more important than the death of a single Taliban leader:
‘Meanwhile, local vigilantes allied to soldiers on Thursday claimed to have killed at least 167 militants in two months, an indication of the growing reach of private armies in the northwest. Officials have said up to 1,000 villagers in Upper Dir formed a vigilante mob two months ago to avenge a mosque bombing that killed 38 people on June 5 in the village of Hayagai Sharqai. “We started with 200 men and now there are 3,000 people,” Malik Moatbir Khan, the chief of the vigilante force, told AFP. “We have killed 167 Taliban militants so far in many gunfights helped by the army,” Khan said, adding that 97 volunteers were also “martyred.” There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.’
But the really big news out of Pakistan in the last week was the finding of the restored Supreme Court that Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s emergency decree of November, 2007, was unconstitutional. The ruling has larger implications, in perhaps suggesting that all of Pakistan’s military coups have been unconstitutional. This is the first time that the Pakistani Supreme Court has so forcefully stood up to the military.
If the American press and political establishment was serious about supporting democracy in Pakistan and the Muslim World, we’d have seen an avalanche of comment praising the Supreme Court ruling as a victory for democracy. I did a keyword search at Lexis under television transcripts and could not find any evidence that anyone in national television or radio except Julie McCarthy at NPR even mentioned the epochal Pakistani Supreme Court ruling!
There is now a question of whether former dictator Pervez Musharraf would be wise to return to Pakistan from London, since he could be arrested and charged. Saudi Arabia is said to have offered him asylum (a delicious irony, since Musharraf sent his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, into exile in Saudi Arabia in 1999). Musharraf consistently got a pass from the US media and Washington establishment, even though he had been before September 11 a big supporter of the Taliban (it wasn’t ideological; he is a secularist). Under his leadership, the Pakistani government took some $10 billion from the United States, some of which it appears to have used to reinvigorate elements of the Taliban so as to destabilize southern Afghanistan and to assert Pakistani power there (at the same time, the Pakistani army was ordered to fight other Taliban, presumably ones threatening Islamabad instead of Kabul). Musharraf even halted a Pakistani military operation initiated by Nawaz Sharif and Bill Clinton to send in a SWAT team to capture or kill Usama Bin Laden. When Musharraf took power, he told the US he wasn’t interested. Musharraf, in his arrogance that only he knows what is good for Pakistan, is actually quite scary, but Washington loved him because he said he was fighting Taliban!
Pakistan is not, as is often alleged, a failed state, and the Supreme Court ruling is a big piece of evidence that the country has a functioning judiciary.
And despite it being non-news in the US, the Pakistani Supreme Court ruling is a bigger turning point in Pakistani history than any we have seen since 1947.