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Hakimullah Mehsud's Big Mistake

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Pakistani intelligence agencies are investigating reports that an important Taliban leader, Hakimulla Mehsud, was mortally wounded in a U.S. drone attack. If he is dead, Hakimulla may go down in the region's history as the man who forced Pakistan to admit the strong links between its own Taliban and the one in Afghanistan.

Hakimullah Mehsud is the leader of the Pakistani Taliban group called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Reports say he died in a U.S. drone attack in Shaktoi near the border of North and South Waziristan, Pakistan.

The TTP is vehemently denying such reports saying that he is alive and well, accusing the Pakistani government of spreading such rumors to create confusion among the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban. But reports of his death and burial are circulating widely across the region, although still unconfirmed by the Pakistani military.

Hakimullah Mehsud may have issued his own death warrant earlier this month when he appeared on an Al-Jazeera video sitting beside Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi. Balawi is believed to be the person behind attacks on the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan. Shortly before the release of this video, he died while carrying out a suicide bombing, killing eight people.

That video confirmed what the Pakistani intelligence agencies had been denying for some time now: the all-important link between the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Taliban. The United State's rhetoric is that both these entities are the same unless both the Taliban factions are dealt with accordingly the attacks on US interests in Afghanistan are not going to stop any time soon.

Pakistan's position is complicated. The government regards the Pakistani Taliban an enemy of the state. The TTP's agenda is clearly against the state of Pakistan as it has claimed responsibility for several suicide attacks across the country. On the other hand, the military tends to think of the Taliban operating in Afghanistan as protecting their future interests.

Security analysts suspect that the Pakistani military is reluctant to go after the Taliban launching attacks in Afghanistan because it wants to maintain what is often termed "strategic depth." Pakistan knows the United States is going to pull out its troops starting July 2011, and when they leave the vacuum could well be filled with the Taliban. Already deals are being made by the current Afghan government to integrate the Taliban into regular life. But with the United States out of Afghanistan, Pakistan needs a friendly neighbor to its west. And this strategy of not going after the Taliban that are not harming Pakistani State interests has been the policy under wraps.

But then why would Mehsud go on TV and show the whole world that the Taliban operating on both sides of the border are united if he knows it would invite both drone attacks from the U.S. and a chase by the Pakistani military? It may be because the Pakistani Taliban do make such mistakes often.

One of the most famous of those mistakes involved Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the head of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a local militant group. Mohammad had struck a golden deal with the government of Pakistan: a get of jail free card and Sharia law for him to rule over the whole valley of Swat.

The whole country watched in shock as this gorgeous summer retreat was handed over to the Kalashnikov-toting Taliban. But as the deal was being finalized, Mohammad pushed too far. He made statements calling democracy un-Islamic. The media picked up on his calls against democracy and soon public opinion had shifted against the Taliban. Seeing the fall of Swat shocked the country enough to give the democratically elected government of Asif Ali Zardari the mandate for a military operation in Swat.

The success of the Swat operation is still questionable. For now the Taliban have retreated from the main cities of the valley and displaced close to two million people. This mandate was then extended to the current military operation in Waziristan. And after the release of this latest video, the chase has been on for the daring leader of the TTP, Hakimullah.

The real question is, now what? Is the death of Hakimullah like cutting one of several heads of a medusa, where another fearless Taliban will be ready to assume leadership? The Pakistani intelligence community now has to finally accept the nexus of evil that exists in Waziristan between Pakistani Taliban groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban and the Taliban operating in Afghanistan. Accepting them as one and the same, both US and Pakistani forces need to share their military intelligence for more coordination in drone strikes and ground operations by the Pakistani forces within the Waziristan region.