Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 1, 2010

ANOTHER COUNTER-TERRORISM SUCCESS STORY?.... In August, a U.S. strike reportedly killed Baitullah Mehsud, a dangerous terrorist who led the Taliban in Pakistan. Today, it appears another U.S. strike has taken out his successor.

Evidence mounted Monday that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, an extremist Islamic militia with close links to al Qaeda and a record of major suicide bombings, has died of burns and other injuries he received during a recent U.S. missile strike in Pakistan's northwest tribal region.

The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, first reported Sunday on Pakistani state television, has not been confirmed by Pakistani officials, and Taliban spokesmen continued to deny it Monday. But one government official said it was "80 per cent" certain Mehsud had died. In addition, both a tribal leader and a Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave similar descriptions of the militia leader's severe injuries after the mid-January missile strike.

Mehsud's apparent demise, coming less than six months after the killing of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in another U.S. drone missile attack, leaves the once-predatory and feared militia effectively decapitated and its fighters on the run from the Pakistan army, which has driven them from both the Swat Valley and the South Waziristan tribal area.

Analysts in Pakistan said it would be extremely difficult for the Taliban to recover from the loss of both leaders, especially given the precipitous decline in public support for the militia and its increasing isolation from elders of the Mehsud tribe, who are now negotiating with the government to hand over surviving Taliban commanders.

"If he's gone, it's a fatal blow," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "At one point the Taliban had a lot of momentum and a charismatic leader. Now they've been uprooted and lost all credibility."

A senior White House official has said he was "95 percent" certain that Mehsud had been killed by the U.S. strike. A senior U.S. official added, "This is one of the worst people on the planet."

Andrew Sullivan noted the political angle: "If you add this record -- and there are many examples of similar surgical strikes decapitating Qaeda figures in the last year -- to the ramp-up of forces in Afghanistan and overhaul of strategy there, I think you can make a very solid case that in the war on Jihadist terrorism, Obama is proving far more effective -- in both soft and hard power -- than the Bush administration ever was."

Such a concept is probably so hard to fathom for much of the political establishment that the very suggestion will likely be ignored.

But Obama has a pretty compelling case to make on this front, and hinted at it last week in the State of the Union: "Since the day I took office, we've renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We've made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We've prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda's fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed -- far more than in 2008."

Part of the issue here is that Obama and his team simply don't like exploiting counter-terrorism victories for political gain. Notice, for example, that there was no grandstanding or back-slapping after Baitullah Mehsud was killed in August. Or when U.S. forces took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa, in September. It seems likely most Americans won't hear about Hakimullah Mehsud's death, either, despite its significance.

The president, by all appearances, finds shameless politicization of counter-terrorism offensive. And it is. But Republicans are running an aggressive misinformation scheme, and the media generally just goes along. There may come a point at which the White House reconsiders whether the public rewards or punishes leaders who act like grown-ups.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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Obama is speaking softly on terrorism, but carrying a big stick. Those around Mehsud, et. al., would hardly agree with Cheney's accusation that Obama does not seem to know we are at war.

Rather than focus on meaningful actions like these, the Republicans would rather bed-wet over the underpants bomber, etc.

Posted by: bob h on February 1, 2010 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Take these reports with a grain (or maybe a pound) of salt. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have exaggerated the positions of the people they manage to kill, and in some cases report people to be dead who aren't actually dead. And the large numbers of civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes tend to motivate new recruits.

Posted by: Joe Buck on February 1, 2010 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

To reiterate Joe Buck (and IF Stone): All Governments Lie.

Maybe we are making progress, maybe we're just assassinating random foreigners. All we have is the gov't's word for it, and no matter who is in charge, there is no reason to take it as the truth.

Posted by: martin on February 1, 2010 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Obama may be offended by shameless politicization of successful counter-terrorism strikes, but he needs to politicize it.

Bush and Cheney exaggerated and lied, butfor a long time the emotional public perception was that they were proactive and fighting.

Here we have real counter-terrorism successes and no one hears about it. Way to sell your case.

Posted by: The Lucky Sea Men on February 1, 2010 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

There may come a point at which the White House reconsiders whether the public rewards or punishes leaders who act like grown-ups.

That decision was made. Anyone remember Jimmy Carter?

Posted by: Oilfieldguy on February 1, 2010 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

If you read the NYT you see frequent mention of these strikes, but I am not aware that anyone else covers them much.

There can be no grandstanding or back-slapping over these strikes because of Pakistani sensitivities. They are really not supposed to be happening.

Obama really should prepare us for the likelihood that Al Qaeda is so hurt by these strikes that they will try to retaliate.

Posted by: bob h on February 1, 2010 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

I hate to say it, but us Merkuns really do groove on some Superbowl end-zone victory dancing when we nail a bad guy. It's cheap and exploitive. It reduces serious warfare to a movie cliche. It is frankly ugly to celebrate death in such ways, but it is what sells. A little more action in the sales department wouldn't hurt Obama right now.

Remember those cute decks of cards with all the top Iraq enemies? Never mind that they were a tool to manipulate us into supporting an immoral war. They let us keep count and measure "progress". They provided souvenirs of success. Georgie Boy got what he wanted because of silly games like that.

So, did we actually kill a bad guy? Or did we kill another unlucky civilian? Or both? I don't know and I never assume the government reports are reliable, but when we have solid and reliable evidence of a measurable victory, I would like to see a confident and mildly self-satisfied announcement from our CiC.

Posted by: GP on February 1, 2010 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

The difference has been accountability. The Bush team gave the Pakistanis 10 billion dollars in foreign military aid. In turn, they used the funds to insight the cold/sometimes hot war with India as opposed to seek out Al Queda in the border region. Obama/Biden/Gates have told the Pakistanis use the money to get Al Queda or the money goes away. The Bushies were incompetent in every way a government can be incompetent.



Posted by: RolloTomasi on February 1, 2010 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

We need a new deck of cards of evil guys, like we did during the early days of our invasion of Iraq. Remember those?

Face it, the Bush guys never really knew how to deal with terrorist threats, they treated it like some creepy war game, and in the case of Iraq, they had no post war plan. None. Nada.

Counter-terrorism requires humility and patience.

Two traits that the Bush era never seemed to fathom.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on February 1, 2010 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

The rethugs keep pinning the underwear bomber on Obama but it was Michelle Bachman, Joe Wilson and the other rethug who asked a question of Obama last week that stopped the body scanning for airports.
The Ft Hood shooting has been attributed to Obama's administration too but it was in 2007 apparently that the military was worried about the major.
Have not heard much said about this.

Posted by: JS on February 1, 2010 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Well, there's politicization, and then there's keeping up the morale of the American people. The day after we crossed the Rhine bridge at Remagen in 1945, I don't think there was anyone saying "We can't make a big deal of this, people will think we're trying to politicize it."

Posted by: JD Rhoades on February 1, 2010 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Even if the news is true, 40% of the electorate will still complain that it was a drone strike, and not carpet bombing, that did the job.

You don't want to get into a poker game where the chips are dead brown people who worship the wrong god and the other guy's even more reckless than you are.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on February 1, 2010 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

If Turd-Blossom's strategy is still gospel in GOP circles, then they will hit Obama's strengths. I sincerely hope they try. I want to hear Obama permanently cap them with a claim that his leadership took out more al Qaeda leaders in one year than the previous president in both terms. And further, he did it cheaper and without counting bodies multiple times.

Posted by: Chopin on February 1, 2010 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

"This is one of the worst people on the planet." I'm not so sure about that. Cheney and Bush are still walking around free, Rove is not in jail either, and Limbaugh still has his day job.

Posted by: N.Wells on February 1, 2010 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

He is a terrific Commander In Chief.

Posted by: impikk on February 1, 2010 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: Martae on February 1, 2010 at 8:35 PM | PERMALINK

and how many civilians did we take out?

Posted by: elbrucce on February 2, 2010 at 12:02 AM | PERMALINK
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