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Aliens and the Taliban: Why Killing Baitullah Mehsud Won't Stop Them

By August 6, 2009

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Baitullah Mehsud
Baitullah Mehsud
Five months ago, Hillary Clinton's State Department posted a $5 million reward for information "leading to the location, arrest, and/or conviction of Baitullah Mehsud." It's not quite the $25 million the FBI is offering for nabbing Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri. And it only matches the amount being offered for a slew of accused terrorists whose names are less familiar than the bombings.

But if a stock market rather than Foggy Bottom set the value of wanted men's rewards, Baitullah Mehsud's would probably exceed that of bin Laden today.

He is the Pakistani Taliban's senior leader (as opposed to Mullah Omar's Afghan Taliban, a different beast), one of the most feared men in Pakistan, very likely the man who ordered Benazir Bhutto murderer and certainly the mastermind of last September's bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. He's also one of NATO's and the United States' pre-eminent enemies in Afghanistan, where Mehsud's forces launch cross-border attacks from his hideout in South Waziristan, probably in the same gated cave community as the al-Qaeda twins (Mullah Omar is partial to the Pakistani province of Baluchistan to the south). Those who don't submit to his authority are murdered. Those who disobey his order, or break Taliban law in his fiefdom, have their heads cut off. He's not a good man. For most of the year he's been the target of CIA missile attacks by unmanned drones. Victims have been mostly civilians--first when the missiles hit, then when, in retaliation, Mehsud sends his bands of killers after the softest targets around. Any symbol of Pakistani authority will do: police stations, government outposts, schools. Lately he's taken to promising retaliations "Not in Afghanistan, but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world."

Now he may be dead.

Wouldn't you know it: a Predator missile attack may have found him while he was visiting relatives. According to the BBC, a US official said there was "reason to believe reports of his death may be true, but it cannot be confirmed." One of Mehsud's wife was killed on Wednesday.

But reports of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders' death have often been premature. When they've been confirmed, they've just as often proved less than consequential. There's always another beheading-mad leader glad to step in the role. No one had heard of Mehsud before 2005. No one has yet heard of his successor, or of Osama bin Laden's successor. The one reliable certainty is that there will be successors. It's in the nature of the cyborg-like movement that produces them. The individuals matter less than the cause they brandish. It's why killing to them is so incidental, why individual life is so disposable, their own included.

In the Alien movies, Elen Ripley was face to face with the perfect killing machine, adaptable to every environment, conquerable by none. The Taliban, Islam's Alien in every sense, is like that. It is defined by what it destroys. Its own included, if it means slugging, and beheading, on.

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