Image: Baitullah Mehsud
AP
Drone strikes in Pakistan have long been focused on al-Qaida leaders, but in recent months top Taliban figures such as Baitullah Mehsud, left, also came into range.
updated 8/7/2009 8:46:00 PM ET 2009-08-08T00:46:00

The lethal drone attack that apparently killed a top Taliban leader in Pakistan is likely to bolster America's dual effort there: solidifying a sometimes shaky partnership with Islamabad while pursuing insurgents hidden along the country's border.

American officials and analysts said it may be too early to tell if the strike that apparently killed Baitullah Mehsud will prompt Pakistan to sustain its suddenly active campaign against Taliban and other militant leaders in the lawless region bordering Afghanistan.

But taking out Pakistan's most-wanted terrorist provides validation for the continued use of the unmanned air assaults that have been hammering insurgents there since late last year. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials said the drone attack against the home of a Mehsud relative was carried out by the CIA.

The strike gives a boost to the Obama administration's remapping of counterterrorism policy, a strategy that melds persistent attacks against insurgents with the expanded use of "soft power," such as economic development, to help win public support against terrorists around the world.

Counterterrorism officials would not disclose details behind the strike, but American and Pakistani commanders have been working more closely together in recent months, sharing intelligence and coordinating attacks, officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters.

Some experts cautioned that the U.S.-Pakistani partnership is still fragile and a tough sell domestically in Pakistan. They worry that the elimination of Pakistan's most dangerous internal threat could just as easily tamp down Islamabad's enthusiasm for future operations in the rugged South Waziristan tribal region.

U.S. authorities said Friday they are increasingly confident that Mehsud was killed in Wednesday's U.S. missile strike in northeastern Pakistan.

"This is an important step for the U.S.-Pakistani relations," said Juan Zarate, former top counterterrorism official in the Bush administration. "Mehsud was really a charismatic figure that was able to galvanize — based on his history, his experience and his brutality — his militaries to attack Pakistan and U.S. interests."

Mehsud increased suicide attacks
Mehsud had increasingly turned his attention to U.S. and other Western targets as he directed suicide attacks and sent recruits across the border into Afghanistan, said Zarate, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Complaints by some Pakistani leaders that the Americans had refused on earlier occasions to target Mehsud were largely dismissed by U.S. officials. The use of armed drones ramped up in the waning days of the Bush administration and has continued at a busy pace during the first seven months of Obama's term.

U.S. officials said Mehsud has been a target for some time although there may have been targeting disagreements in the past. One U.S. counterterrorism official said there are sometimes conflicts over tactics, even as the broader goals remain the same.

The use of drone strikes in Pakistan has long been focused on high-priority al-Qaida leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but in recent months top Taliban figures such as Mehsud also came into range.

U.S. officials say choices also take into account the quality and timelines of the intelligence about possible targets as well as the availability of resources, conflicts with other operations and concerns about possible consequences such as civilian casualties.

Last year U.S. and Pakistan military officials met in a secret session in which Pakistani leaders agreed to target al-Qaida operatives in return for greater U.S. action against militant tribal leaders such as Mehsud who were a more significant threat to Pakistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has traveled to Pakistan no fewer than 13 times in the past two years, meeting with his military counterparts to foster better coordination.

As U.S. counterterrorism officials worked to nail down details of the strike and its impact on the insurgency, the Taliban were holding a "shura" council to choose Mehsud's successor, intelligence officials and militants told The Associated Press.

That gathering, U.S. officials said, underscores the group's ability to re-energize itself and could convince Pakistan of a need to continue its military operations in the tribal region.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the operation "demonstrates the amount of cooperation that you're seeing between our government and the government of Pakistan in stamping out the Taliban, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that would seek to destabilize the area."

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called Mehsud's death "a sign that our joint efforts with Pakistan's military to combat al-Qaida and other terrorists are working."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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