Pakistan Taliban leader's purported death opens window of opportunity

For years, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have nurtured a symbiotic relationship that has paid off for both militant groups. The Taliban provided Al Qaeda and its leaders sanctuary within the rugged wasteland of Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border. In turn, Al Qaeda trained and helped finance its host.

Now, with the purported death of Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud and his organization temporarily rudderless, Al Qaeda finds itself made vulnerable by the disarray plaguing its patron, experts and Pakistani intelligence sources say. It's a window of opportunity that neither Pakistan nor the United States can afford to neglect.

"It's a bad patch for Al Qaeda, because of the infighting and the fight for top leadership going on right now within the Taliban," said a Pakistani intelligence source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "So, for the time being, Al Qaeda will be disturbed. But I stress, for the time being."

Mahsud's death has yet to be verified, but both Pakistani and U.S. officials are confident that an American drone strike Aug. 5 did kill the Taliban leader, long regarded by Pakistanis as their most-wanted militant. Since his death, Taliban commanders have been feuding over the right to succeed him, and rifts within the ranks have threatened to undo the unity Mahsud had carefully forged.

With the Taliban mired in disarray, experts say Pakistan and the U.S. need to ratchet up their bid to track down and eliminate other top Taliban commanders. The aim, they say, is not just to dismantle the Taliban, but to cut off Al Qaeda from the entity that keeps it insulated and secure deep within the badlands of Waziristan.

Officials in Washington have repeatedly pushed Islamabad to aggressively pursue militants throughout northwestern Pakistan. However, the Obama administration has taken care to not be perceived as dictating Pakistan's military strategizing.

At a joint news conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Sunday, Obama's special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, said the U.S. would not intervene in Pakistan's handling of the effort to root out militants from South Waziristan.

"It's a decision for the Pakistan government to make, and to make alone," said Holbrooke, who was on the second day of a 12-day regional tour.

Qureshi promised in turn that the Pakistani army would carry out a long-anticipated drive against militants in South Waziristan. "We will go to every area to clear our territory of terrorists," he said.

But some analysts fear that Pakistan will not move aggressively against the South Waziristan strongholds. Lisa Curtis, a former U.S. government South Asia analyst now at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said that Pakistan's follow-up is one of the key issues between the two governments.

In some areas, the U.S. government "still hasn't gotten cooperation on counter-terrorism," she said. With Pakistan, "the glass is half full and half empty."

Al Qaeda fighters streamed over the Afghan border into Pakistan's tribal areas after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Seeking protection from Pakistani tribal warlords, Al Qaeda's militants, many of them Arabs and Uzbeks, found an ideal partnership with Mahsud, who had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s. By 2007 he had set his sights on the Pakistani state as his prime target.

Under attack from unmanned U.S. aircraft, Al Qaeda militants in Waziristan needed a tribal ally who would not only provide safe haven, but would also pressure Pakistan's security establishment with suicide bombings and ambushes so that support for cooperation with the U.S. would eventually erode, said Pakistani security analyst Imtiaz Gul.

Gul and other experts believe the best strategy against Al Qaeda is to forge ahead with the dismantling of the Taliban in the tribal areas. The hope is that Al Qaeda would eventually become unprotected and vulnerable.

"They must keep the pressure up, and take out as many people in the Taliban's top tier leadership as possible," Gul said. "That would be the effective way of dealing with Al Qaeda, by taking the carpet from under their feet. And with the Taliban in disarray right now, this is the right time."

Whether the Pakistani military adopts that strategy remains unclear, despite Qureshi's reassuring words Sunday. An all-out offensive against the Taliban in Swat during the spring succeeded in flushing militants out of the volatile region's urban centers and towns. However, the military has held off on unleashing a second offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan, arguing that the best tack there is to blockade militants' supply routes and use airstrikes against hide-outs and camps.

"In Waziristan, we will wear them out, and whatever intelligence we get, we will use to go and hit them," said Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed. "There won't be a major ground action. There will be small ground operations, but nothing like we saw in Swat."

Under that plan, some experts say, wearing down the Taliban could take years. "I would say time is running out, even now," said Masood Sharif Khattak, a security analyst and former top Pakistani intelligence official. "It has to be faster. If they let the Taliban regroup, they will win. If we don't let them regroup, then probably it will be the beginning of the end of militancy."

Whether Pakistan succeeds in rooting out militants in the tribal areas will depend largely on the quality of intelligence it gets from informants and operatives in the region. Pakistani intelligence officials found out Mahsud was staying at his father-in-law's house in South Waziristan and relayed the militant leader's whereabouts to the U.S., leading to the drone strike that killed him.

However, Pakistan acknowledges that it has far more intelligence on Pakistani Taliban militants and their leaders than it has on Al Qaeda.

"As far as the Taliban is concerned, we have data on their people and their areas, and that's why they are an easier target for us," said the Pakistani intelligence source. "But the Al Qaeda members are fewer in number, and they come, interact, and then leave."

U.S. officials believe airstrikes nonetheless have killed nine of Al Qaeda's leading 20 commanders.

A major test of Pakistan's commitment to fighting militancy within its borders will be its willingness to help capture or eliminate other major militant leaders with strong links to Al Qaeda, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is believed to be hiding out in Pakistan's remote Baluchistan province. Both leaders have directed their efforts at Afghanistan rather than Pakistan, and up until now neither has been regarded by Islamabad as a major target.

Pakistani intelligence sources say that, if asked, they would be willing to cooperate in helping track down both Omar and Haqqani.

"Why wouldn't Pakistan help?" the Pakistani intelligence source said. "There's no reason why we would say no. We want to stand by the world community, and we will."

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.

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