ISLAMABAD — Missiles from a CIA drone killed a Pakistani Taliban leader Wednesday who was carrying a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, Pakistani security officials said, an indication that the Obama administration and the Pakistani military still are cooperating on the top-secret U.S. targeted killing program.
The strike against Waliur Rehman Mehsud was the first in Pakistan since President Barack Obama outlined tighter rules for the controversial targeted killing program in a speech last week, and some experts questioned whether the criteria used to target him conformed to the president’s pledges of greater accountability and transparency.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to confirm a U.S. hand in Mehsud’s death. But he contended that Mehsud “has participated in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO personnel and horrific attacks against Pakistani civilians and soldiers.”
Carney noted that Mehsud also was wanted in connection with a Dec. 30, 2009, suicide bombing at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven Americans working for the CIA and a Jordanian intelligence officer. Since 2010, the Justice Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Mehsud.
“While we are not in the position to confirm the reports of Waliur Rehman’s death, if those reports were true or prove to be true, it’s worth noting that his demise would deprive the TTP of its second in command and chief military strategist,” said Carney, using the initials for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the loose amalgam of groups that compose the Pakistani Taliban.
Mehsud and three other militants died when two missiles leveled a mud-brick house in Chashma, a village outside Miran Shah, the administrative center for the North Waziristan tribal agency, according to Pakistani security officials, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Four other people were wounded.
North Waziristan borders eastern Afghanistan and is a haven for al Qaida, Pakistani Islamists, and Afghan and other foreign extremists. About half is controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, who’ve killed thousands of people since they launched an insurgency in 2007 in an effort to replace Pakistan’s secular government with Islamic rule.
Although officially designated the No. 2, Mehsud in practice has been the chief since December, when the leadership council effectively fired its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, for ordering the assassination of another senior commander. Hakimullah Mehsud has since led his own, more radical faction.
Waliur Rehman Mehsud’s death “will create a crisis of leadership because there is no obvious successor, and Hakim is in no position to make a comeback,” said Mansur Khan, the director of research at the FATA Research Center, an independent policy institute in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concerns” over Wednesday’s strike, contending that it violated the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.
Pakistan has routinely condemned the CIA strikes. It says that at least 2,200 people, including as many as 600 civilians, have died in some 330 such attacks since 2004.
Yet Waliur Rehman’s death suggests that the CIA and the powerful Pakistani army-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate are continuing to cooperate on drone operations against the Pakistani Taliban that date to 2004.
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 ISI against the Pakistani Taliban at least through June 2010 in return for ISI 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 the ISI’s role in order to shield civilian and military leaders from a popular backlash over the strikes and civilian casualties.
CIA drones were based at airfields in Pakistan until December 2011, when Pakistan halted CIA drone operations from its territory after 25 of its troops were killed when U.S. aircraft strafed a Pakistani outpost near the Afghanistan border. Drones have continued flying into Pakistan from U.S. bases in Afghanistan, albeit at a much reduced rate from their peak in 2010-11.
Several experts said it was unlikely that the strike that killed Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who was thought to be in his early 40s, would have been launched without the ISI’s approval.
“For a TTP hit, I have no reason to doubt that the ISI was involved,” said Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
Waliur Rehman Mehsud’s death comes just before the assumption of power next month of a government led by Nawaz Sharif, a center-right politician who’ll become the prime minister for a record third time. Sharif based his appeal partly on his demand for an end to drone strikes and a pledge to seek peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
It’s unclear, however, whether Sharif’s plan has the backing of the powerful army, which ruled the country for half of its 65-year existence and has 150,000 troops in the tribal region, where fighting is underway in three of the seven tribal agencies.
Taking out Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who was seen as more amenable to negotiations than Hakimullah Mehsud, could be a way for the military to short-circuit Sharif’s plans.
“I can imagine that the ISI is not especially happy with Nawaz Sharif’s professions of wanting to open talks with the TTP,” Fair said, pointing out that the militants have repeatedly rejected a demand that they accept Pakistan’s democratic Constitution as a condition for peace. “One way of clipping his wings on this issue is by taking out a senior member of the TTP leadership.”
Legal scholars who question the legality of targeted killings said Mehsud’s killing seemed to contravene the rules that Obama broadly described last week for targeted killings. A key issue concerned the criteria that the administration used in apparently designating Mehsud a target.
Carney and a senior administration official cited Mehsud’s alleged role in the 2009 CIA base bombing and attacks on U.S. and NATO personnel in Afghanistan as one reason he might be targeted. But Obama said in his speech that targeted killings aren’t use to exact revenge, asserting that, “America does not take strikes to punish individuals.”
The senior administration official, who asked not to be further identified in order to discuss the issue, said the Pakistani Taliban also have repeatedly threatened attacks on the United States, most recently after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, and that they’d supported a failed May 2010 car bombing in New York’s Time Square.
Obama, however, said that only terrorists of al Qaida and its associated forces who posed a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans could be hit. Carney and the senior administration official declined to discuss any intelligence involving Mehsud, and the administration hasn’t disclosed the groups that it considers al Qaida’s “associated forces.”
Sarah Knuckey, a New York University law professor who co-authored a major 2012 study of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, said confusion about the targeted killing guidelines would persist until they were made public.
“It needs to be demonstrated to the public and Congress that the rules have been observed,” she said. “Otherwise we will continue to ask the same questions, and that undermines the legitimacy of the program.”
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.