The American missile strike that killed Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mahsud, Pakistan's most wanted militant and a staunch Al Qaeda ally, dealt a devastating broadside to extremists and handed the United States a major victory in its bid to help stabilize the volatile nuclear state.
Mahsud's death, confirmed Friday by top Pakistani officials as well as the Taliban, creates a vacuum within the command structure of the militant organization and gives the Pakistani military a rare opportunity to weaken the group, former top Pakistani security and intelligence officials said.
"The loss for the Taliban is tremendous. He was their center of gravity," said former Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao. "His loss means there will be confusion and total demoralization within their ranks. This is a window of opportunity that Pakistan has to take advantage of."
Mahsud, believed to be 35, was killed in a missile strike by an unmanned U.S. aircraft early Wednesday, Pakistani officials said. One of Mahsud's two wives was also killed in the attack, which struck the home of Mahsud's father-in-law in South Waziristan, a volatile tribal area of Pakistan along the Afghan border that the Taliban has used as a base for years.
Mahsud's wife was killed first, by a missile that struck the house, Pakistan's Express News channel reported. When Mahsud tried to escape in his car, a second missile struck and killed him, the Pakistani channel reported.
A source close to Mahsud's father-in-law said seven of the family's bodyguards and at least 26 other people also were killed. The source's claim could not be confirmed.
Immediately after the strike, Taliban leaders denied that Mahsud, the suspected mastermind of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, was among the dead.
On Friday, however, a top Mahsud aide confirmed his death.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also confirmed the death. "According to my sources, the news is correct," Qureshi said. "He has been taken out."
No. 1 target
Pakistani military and government leaders had regarded Mahsud as Public Enemy No. 1, a clever, ruthless opponent responsible for engineering suicide bomb attacks and ambushes that killed more than 1,200 people in recent years. He had as many as 20,000 fighters under his command and provided haven to Al Qaeda militants who fled after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
For weeks, the Pakistani military had been preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan aimed at eliminating Mahsud and his Taliban fighters. Rather than sending in ground troops, as they did against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley, military commanders have been blockading Mahsud's supply routes in and out of South Waziristan while using fighter jet bombing raids to strike the group's hide-outs.
In the end, though, Mahsud's death was the result of an attack from a U.S. drone, a weapon that has been a major source of friction between Washington and Islamabad. Pakistani leaders have condemned U.S. drone attacks in the country's tribal areas, saying they violate Pakistan's sovereignty and result in large numbers of civilian casualties.
The U.S. has increased its reliance on such attacks in North and South Waziristan in recent weeks. That escalation coincides with heightened cooperation between Islamabad and Washington, particularly over Pakistan's military operations against the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan. The U.S. also is sharing with Pakistan intelligence collected by drone flights over militant targets in Pakistani territory.
Mahsud's death gives a significant boost to the Pakistani military's efforts to rein in the Taliban, which it has failed to do despite several offensives in the country's volatile northwest over several years. Its most recent attempt to crush the Taliban in the Swat Valley has been lauded by Pakistani leaders as a resounding success, but most of the Taliban leadership in Swat remains at large.
With Mahsud gone, the Taliban in Waziristan probably will be in disarray as jockeying for leadership begins, experts said. Mahsud's death gives Pakistan a chance to exploit that vulnerability, analysts said, by keeping up military pressure on the Taliban while also beginning talks with militants willing to lay down their arms.
"It's an opportunity for the state of Pakistan to wrest the initiative from the Taliban," said Masood Sharif Khattak, a former top Pakistani intelligence official. "There must be a lot of people wanting to get out of all this. This is an opportunity to work on that, to give those people who want to give up that chance to do so."
Several names have surfaced as potential successors to Mahsud, including Mahsud aide Wali ur-Rehman and Hakimullah Mahsud, a Taliban leader based in the tribal area's Orakzai region. He is not believed to be related to Baitullah Mahsud.
"There are Mahsud subordinates, people like Hakimullah Mahsud, who could succeed him," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. "As a rule, these commanders are harsh characters who have supervised suicide operations, kidnappings and other crimes.
"The real challenge for any of them would be to hold together the network of tribal groups that Baitullah Mahsud assembled," the official said. "It's not monolithic. There are serious personal and economic rivalries."
None of the candidates are likely to attain the stature that Mahsud had any time soon, experts said. And the process of selecting a new leader could exacerbate those rivalries, they said.
"As they begin choosing another leader, there will be factions forming that would definitely impact the Taliban's ability to continue fighting," said Sherpao, the former interior minister. "This is the time to win over tribal groups and people who were with Mahsud."
Washington has criticized the Pakistani government for entering into peace deals with Taliban groups.
A truce with Swat Taliban leader Maulana Qazi Fazlullah fell apart this year when Taliban militants reneged on their promise to lay down arms and instead expanded their reach to within 60 miles of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.
Cease-fires negotiated with Mahsud in 2005 and early 2008 fell apart, and afterward Mahsud's fighters resumed their attacks. The truce in 2005 gave Mahsud time to consolidate and build up rank-and-file fighters.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Friday that Pakistan would press on with its military offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan.
"It is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mahsud's group," Malik said, "and it will continue until his group is eliminated forever."
Experts described Mahsud as a clever, careful tactician who deftly chose the time to strike and the time to lie low. Born in the Bannu district of North-West Frontier Province, Mahsud was schooled in a Pakistani madrasa and later fought alongside Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
In December 2007, he was chosen as the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban, a coalition of pro-Taliban groups that menaced Pakistani society with suicide bombings and other attacks.
At a rare news conference last year in South Waziristan, Mahsud talked of the rationale for relying on suicide attacks to inflict terror.
"America is bombing us and we are facing cruelty, so we will support these suicide attacks," the Taliban leader said. Suicide bombings "are our atomic weapons. Although the infidels have atomic weapons, our atomic weapons are the finest in the world."
On the streets of Peshawar, a city of nearly 3 million bordering Pakistan's tribal areas, news of Mahsud's death was greeted with relief by many. Peshawar was hit with a string of suicide bombings this year as Pakistani troops waged their offensives in Swat and South Waziristan.
"He was very lethal," said shopkeeper Sarwar Khan. "He earned a bad name for our country and for Muslims. Such people should be eliminated."
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington and special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.