Nation & World

Pakistani Taliban says it’ll seek revenge for CIA drone killing of their No. 2

The Pakistani Taliban confirmed Thursday that its deputy chief had been killed by a drone strike and vowed revenge against the government for allegedly providing the terrorist chief’s coordinates to the CIA.

Ahsanullah Ahsan, the spokesman of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, phoned McClatchy to confirm that a U.S. drone strike early Wednesday had killed Waliur Rehman Mehsud, the terrorist outfit’s deputy chief.

Ahsan said the TTP’s offer of peace talks with the incoming government had been withdrawn because the terrorist organization was convinced that the Pakistani government – by which he inferred the Pakistani military – was complicit in the strike on the village of Chashma that killed Mehsud and three other militants.

Although officially No. 2 to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakimullah Mehsud, Waliur Mehsud had been handed responsibility for running the organization in December by the outfit’s ruling council.

“We had sincerely offered peace talks to the government, but are now withdrawing it,” Ahsan said. “We strongly believe that (the government) played a role in the drone strike.”

The Pakistani government officially denies any complicity in CIA drone strikes against terrorists in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, the hotbed of Pakistani militancy on Afghanistan’s eastern border. On Wednesday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed concern about the strike that killed Mehsud but did not comment directly on his death.

Yet a review of top-secret U.S. intelligence reports that McClatchy published in April showed that despite Pakistan’s denials of collaboration, the CIA launched drone strikes on behalf of the Pakistani military against the Pakistani Taliban at least through June 2010 in return for aid against al Qaida.

Two former U.S. officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, told McClatchy there was an understanding in Washington and Islamabad that Pakistan would denounce the strikes publicly to obscure its role in order to shield civilian and military leaders from a popular backlash over the strikes and civilian casualties.

Similarly, Pakistan’s usually outspoken cable television political show hosts veered away from discussing the possibility that the military’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate might have cooperated with the CIA – possibly after receiving unofficial “advice” from the military, as is common practice.

Instead, discussion on Wednesday’s primetime current affairs programming band, which is watched by as many Pakistani viewers as the latest sitcoms, focused on how the assassination of Mehsud was an attempt by the United States to sabotage peace talks with the TTP that had been proposed by Pakistan’s incoming prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who is to take office next week.

“When the U.S. has wanted to convey a message, it has often done so by drone assassination. The U.S. wanted to say it opposes the proposed peace talks, so it sent this message,” Rahimullah Yousafzai, a respected newspaper editor, said in an interview with Geo News, Pakistan’s most popular channel.

Pakistani security analysts contacted by McClatchy were unwilling to comment on the record on the likelihood that the government was involved in the drone strike. But they acknowledged privately that Mehsud’s killing suggested continued cooperation in drone strikes between the U.S. and the Pakistani military.

Pakistan has never publicly acknowledged any such arrangement, despite detailed revelations to the contrary. In addition to McClatchy's April report, U.S. diplomatic cables published by the WikiLeaks website in 2009 and a 2010 book, “Obama’s Wars,” by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward also laid out Pakistan-U.S. cooperation on targeted killings.

WikiLeaks documents showed that Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, and Yousuf Raza Gilani, then the prime minister, had readily agreed to the U.S. drone strikes, while Woodward wrote that units of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command were physically based in the tribal areas, where they jointly hunted for terrorist suspects with the Pakistani military up to 2009.

Mehsud was the fourth major Pakistani Taliban leader to have been killed in U.S. drone strikes after successfully evading the Pakistani military for years. The first drone strike in June 2004 killed Nek Mohammed, a militant leader in South Waziristan, shortly after he concluded a cease-fire agreement with the Pakistani military. Baitullah Mehsud, the first and most powerful leader of the TTP after its formation in 2007, was killed in August 2009, and deputy leader Qari Hussain Mehsud was killed in October 2010.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.