The vehicle carrying Hakimullah Mehsud, his driver, uncle and two guards had just left the small mosque in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region when it was hit three or four missiles in rapid succession. The missiles were fired by a U.S. drone flying high above. Mehsud was the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan and the most wanted man in the country. The strike dealt a significant blow to the Taliban and was criticized by the Pakistani government as hindering its efforts to broker a peace settlement with militants.
The United States has had a $5 million bounty on Mehsud since he became the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan in 2009. U.S. intelligence links him to a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven CIA employees. That same year, Mehsud rose to the leadership after American drones killed the previous leader (and his mentor), Baitullah Mehsud.
“We confirm with great sorrow that our esteemed leader was martyred in a drone attack,” a top Taliban commander told Reuters. Mehsud spent years on the run in an effort to evade being targeted by drones. According to Al Jazeera, he had been reported killed several times before the November 1 strike.
The killing of Mehsud comes on the heels of the capture of a Pakistani Taliban lieutenant last month in Afghanistan and a drone strike that killed Mehsud’s second in command in May.
Pakistani government officials condemned the attack in a statement, but said nothing about Mehsud’s death in particular. However, Jan Achakzai, a spokesman for the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, told reporters that he believed the U.S. was trying to undermine the negotiations with the Taliban.
“The U.S. is trying to sabotage the peace process,” Achakzai said, according to The Washington Post.
In the weeks leading up to the strike, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s administration made overtures to the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban to end years of fighting. Mehsud was leaving a meeting of tribal leaders to discuss the proposed peace settlement when he was killed. Mehsud was widely seen as unwilling to compromise on Taliban demands, but he may have been considering changing his position.
Two weeks before his death, Mehsud granted an exclusive interview to BBC News. In the interview, he expressed a willingness to sit down with negotiators from Islamabad.
“We believe in serious talks,” Mehsud told the BBC. “But the government has taken no steps to approach us. The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions.”
Mehsud’s death presents Pakistan with both a problem and an opportunity. On the one hand, Sharif’s government is seen as aiding American drone strikes that have killed many militants. The assassination of the Taliban’s top leader could anger his supporters enough to make them walk away from the negotiating table. On the other hand, Mehsud was a polarizing figure. His death could be an opportunity for more moderate elements of the Taliban to push for a peace agreement.
While many people on both sides are wary of a peace deal, Sharif was elected to office in part to end the years of fighting that have killed thousands. Among the Taliban’s demands are the cessation of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.