The South Asia Channel

Does Baitullah Mehsud’s death really leave al Qaeda exposed?

By Nicholas Schmidle Back in May, Michael Kinsley, holding the newly redesigned issue of Newsweek in hand, weighed the future of the newsmagazine. Guess what? He wasn’t particularly impressed. “Whenever they have an existential crisis – and this is not the first – they always make the wrong choice,” he wrote in The New Republic. ...

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By Nicholas Schmidle

Back in May, Michael Kinsley, holding the newly redesigned issue of Newsweek in hand, weighed the future of the newsmagazine. Guess what? He wasn’t particularly impressed. “Whenever they have an existential crisis - and this is not the first - they always make the wrong choice,” he wrote in The New Republic. But putting aside Newsweek’s innovative streak (or lack thereof), their coverage of Pakistan is pretty darn good.

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By Nicholas Schmidle

Back in May, Michael Kinsley, holding the newly redesigned issue of Newsweek in hand, weighed the future of the newsmagazine. Guess what? He wasn’t particularly impressed. “Whenever they have an existential crisis – and this is not the first – they always make the wrong choice,” he wrote in The New Republic. But putting aside Newsweek’s innovative streak (or lack thereof), their coverage of Pakistan is pretty darn good.

Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai, who survived a Taliban ambush and attempted kidnapping last November, comprise a fantastic reporting duo. Last month, they wrote my favorite piece (with the TNR-esque title “Fight Flub”) so far about the Swat refugees and the Pakistani government’s rush to get them back in their homes – even if the fighting is far from over.

On Friday, they wrote another thoughtful and descriptive article, this one about the implications of Baitullah Mehsud’s apparent death on al Qaeda. (Here’s my take, if you’re interested.) The central argument – “With Mehsud gone, Al Qaeda could be in trouble” – is a provocative one, but I don’t know if, despite some great reporting throughout, they ever really back it up. I agree that Baitullah Mehsud supplied suicide bombers on missions that were probably planned by al Qaeda, and I agree that Mehsud’s cooperation with al Qaeda made him exceedingly dangerous. But what are the signs that al Qaeda is feeling exposed?

But what really gave me pause was the claim that “Mehsud…proved to be an even better host for al Qaeda than Mullah Omar.” Moreau and Yousafzai follow this up with examples of how Mehsud benefited from al Qaeda: funds, military expertise, ideological guidance, etc. But is Mehsud a better host? I wonder where Bin Laden would rather be right now – in Kandahar in the late 1990s, with a country at his disposal, or holed up in South Waziristan, wondering if that buzzing is a mosquito in his ear or a drone flying 10,000 feet overhead? I’ll bet a world famous pomegranate from Kandahar would be tasting pretty good.

One other small quibble: the piece identifies Maulvi Nazir, another top Talib in South Waziristan, as part of Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. He’s not. In fact, Nazir and Mehsud were known rivals, since Nazir is generally cooperative with the Pakistani government, and Mehsud pledged to overthrow it. Still, just before Valentine’s Day 2009, with love in the air, Nazir and Mehsud suspended their differences long enough to establish the Council of United Mujahideen, swearing fealty to Mullah Omar and Bin Laden. I can’t say whether the creation of the Council was a force multiplier, or purely cosmetic, but I can say that Nazir is not amongst those in the TTP who are ambushing Pakistani military convoys.

Nicholas Schmidle is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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