The CIA notched another kill on its score sheet in the war on terror. The latest terrorist kingpin to be hunted down and eliminated by the agency’s drones is Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the TTP, or, as it more commonly known in the West, the Pakistani Taliban. Apparently several missiles–fired presumably by a Reaper drone–incinerated the car in which Mehsud was traveling on Friday through a tribal area of western Pakistan.
Considering how many deaths Mehsud was responsible for–he was a mass murderer thousands of times over–his demise can only be celebrated. But that celebration should be tempered by the knowledge that his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was previously eliminated in a CIA drone strike in 2009 and his death, while a temporary hindrance, did little to hamper the group’s operations in the long run. There is no reason to think that Hakimullah’s elimination will do more than temporary damage to the Pakistani Taliban either. Indeed the group’s remaining leaders were already meeting on Saturday to choose a successor.
The fact that the Pakistani Taliban is able to continue functioning after the loss of a top leader should be no surprise. Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, among many other terror groups, have shown similar resilience. History suggests that while some insurgent groups can be badly wounded and even defeated by the elimination of a top leader–a recent example is the Shining Path in Peru which has been a shadow of its former self since the arrest of its founder, Abimail Buzman, in 1992–most such groups are popular enough and resilient enough that they can withstand such losses.
Indeed the assassination of a top leader can sometimes be a blessing in disguise because it can bring a stronger and more cunning leader forward. Hassan Nasrallah, for example, has been a devilishly effective leader for Hezbollah, helping the Iranian-backed terror organization to all but take over Lebanon and now spread its influence into Syria. He might never have gotten the chance to lead, however, if Israel hadn’t eliminated his predecessor, Abbas al-Musawi, in 1992.
That’s not an argument for stopping such targeted strikes, which can help to slow down a terror group at least temporarily and to keep it off balance. Rather it is an argument for developing a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy to defeat such organizations–something that Israel lacks in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah and that the U.S. lacks in the case of the Pakistani Taliban and other terror groups that shelter on Pakistan’s soil.
As I have argued many times in the past, drone strikes are necessary but insufficient. They should not be stopped, but nor should anyone be fooled into thinking they are a cure-all for a malignant insurgency such as the one in Pakistan (or Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen or–choose your country) which is fed by pervasive government failure and official corruption.