AC: "If indeed this has been a success, then America should herald this."
August 06, 2009
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Breaking News tonight that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud -- who allegedly masterminded the assassination of Benazir Bhutto -- may have been killed by a US drone attack. Erica Hill speaks with Michael (in Mexico City) and Peter Bergen (in Islamabad) about what this might mean.
ERICA HILL: More breaking news tonight about a man rarely seen on camera, and never very clearly, frequently with his back turned.
Tonight, though, there's word from American officials the top Taliban leader in Pakistan just might have been caught in the gun sights of a U.S. drone -- targeted and killed.
Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, is he really gone? And if so, what's next? Joining us now, CNN's Michael Ware and Peter Bergen. Good to have both of you with us.
Peter, I want to start with you. He's the leader, for those at home who may not familiar with him, of a major coalition of Taliban groups and Al Qaeda supporters. So if he is dead, how big of a blow is this to their goals and in fact their holding there?
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECRETARY ANALYST: It's quite a big deal. He's the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan's major political party back in 2007. The U.N. has identified him as a principle source of suicide attackers in Pakistan.
He's also a principle source of suicide attackers going over the border in Afghanistan, killing NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces there.
So certainly taking him out of picture is important.
However, we have seen it before, Abu Masab al Zaqarwi in Iraq, for instance, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq killed in 2006. The violence actually went up in Iraq. So taking out one person doesn't, of course, end things.
But this is a very important symbolic victory, if indeed it is true.
HILL: Michael, for a lot of folks at home, the immediate thought would go to Afghanistan, Pakistan's neighbor, where there are a obviously a number of U.S. troops fighting the war there.
He was known to be an ally of Mullah Omar and also the Afghan Taliban. What's the impact of his death on the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's a good question, Erica. And I'd say two things. As Mark Twain said, reports of my death are exaggerated. We've heard that Baitullah Mehsud has been killed before only to see him resurface. We've seen this with many Al Qaeda leaders in the past.
So we do need to keep in check any sense of optimism over this strike. I'm monitoring jihadi and American websites and blogs at the moment, I'm still seeing very conflicting reports.
In terms of the American war in Afghanistan, the death, if it's true, of Baitullah Mehsud, I'm afraid to report will only have a limited impact.
Baitullah mehsud is the leader of this coalition of Pakistani Taliban. And the war principally in Afghanistan is being fought by Afghan Taliban.
Now, you have Al Qaeda in the middle trying to unite this groups as much as possible, trying to direct efforts in one direction on several fronts.
But Baitullah Mehsud is primarily responsible for the Pakistani conflict there. So in terms of American boots on the ground, American deaths and casualties and British deaths and casualties, this may still have only a limited impact -- Erica?
HILL: Peter, is there any concern, even though it may have a limited impact in Afghanistan, that the death could in fact somehow embolden his supporters in Pakistan, and maybe that could spill over?
BERGEN: Well, I mean there may be some reprisal killings.
But I'm going to disagree with Michael slightly. Most of the suicide attackers that go into Afghanistan, according to the United Nations, actually come from the tribal areas where Baitullah Mehsud is.
I've interviewed a number of them, failed suicide attackers -- a pretty good definition of failure, a failed suicide attacker. And overwhelmingly these guys come from the tribal areas of Pakistan where Mehsud is based.
And we've seen the Americans and the Pakistanis now cooperate very strongly trying to kill Baitullah Mehsud or at least interrupt his network.
President Obama has authorized 28 drone strikes since he took office. That's more than President Bush had done at this point last year. And about 13 of them, at least half of them have been directed at Baitullah Mehsud's network.
So even if he himself had not been killed, these drone strikes have put a great deal of pressure on his network and, indeed, his family, because it is confirmed that both his wife and his father in law are in fact, dead.
HILL: And it's a network where he said in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2008 that the main aim is to finish Britain, the U.S., and to crush the pride of non-Muslims. So obviously, there is plenty of hatred for the U.S., for the U.K., for the west.
What is the significance then if, in fact, he was killed by a U.S. drone, Peter?
WARE: Well, in many ways --
BERGEN: President Obama has amped up his program.
HILL: Go ahead, Peter, and then, Michael, I'll let you weigh in after.
BERGEN: Sure. President Obama has really ramped up this program. President Bush started ramping it up around July of 2008 and now President Obama has really taken this program and authorized more strikes than under his predecessor.
HILL: Michael, I'll give you the last word here.
WARE: And what I was going to say is that, obviously, Pakistan's alliance with America in terms of fighting the Taliban is a hot button issue domestically in Pakistan. America is not popular generally with the Pakistanis.
So the government in Islamabad has tried to maintain a distance from Washington even while it collaborates with these air strikes.
But from Washington, if indeed this has been a success, then America should herald this. It shouldn't shy away from celebrating this as a tactical and perhaps a strategic victory -- Erica?
HILL: We'll continue to follow the developments. Michael Ware, Peter Bergen, good to have both of you with us tonight. Thank you.