It’s not the first time that reports arose of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death. Two years ago almost to the day, the US thought they had killed the successor to Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike, only to have Hakimullah show up in Taliban videos in 2010 and 2011. News broke overnight that the US and Pakistan think the younger Mehsud may have joined the elder Mehsud in body temperature:
The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, the militant movement that poses the gravest security threat to the country, was believed killed by aU.S. drone strike, four Pakistan intelligence officials told Reuters on Sunday.
The officials said they intercepted wireless radio chatter between Taliban fighters detailing how Hakimullah Mehsud was killed while travelling in a convoy to a meeting in the North Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border.
The Pakistani Taliban deny that their leader was killed in the drone strike on January 12th, NTTAWWT, apparently:
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told reporters in the country’s northwest that reports of Mehsud’s death were false.
“There is no truth in reports about his death. However, he is a human being and can die any time. He is a mujahid and we wish him martyrdom,” he said.
Two unnamed senior Taliban commanders and close aides of Mehsud told The News daily that the Taliban chief was alive.
They said reports about his death were part of a “plan to provoke Hakimullah to surface and approach the media”.
Other Taliban sources in North Waziristan told the paper that the January 12 drone attack had killed nine people. The sources said a majority of those killed were Turkmen.
I doubt that the news came from a plan to get Mehsud to surface. He was smarter than that in 2010, when he waited months to show his face in a propaganda video, and neither the US nor Pakistan would seriously think it would work on a second effort, if in fact that’s what they tried two years ago.
Pakistan would benefit from Mehsud’s martyrdom, as it would both weaken the Taliban organization and their ties to al-Qaeda. Of course, that’s what they thought when Baitullah Mehsud got killed in a 2009 drone strike as well. It did have some impact on their organization, but the rise of Hakimullah allowed the Taliban to regroup more quickly and effectively than first hoped. The question would be whether Hakimullah had an opportunity to groom a potential replacement that could accomplish that kind of unity in his absence — or whether, as a young man, he was inclined to do so and promote a potential rival for power. If not, a successful drone strike on Hakimullah might very well be a disaster for the Pakistani Taliban.
Real Clear World notes that the Taliban’s denial was “far less assertive” than the one in 2010 after the US and Pakistan first claimed he was killed. They may be scrambling to find Mehsud before getting more categorical about his status. I suspect it might be months before we find out for sure.