Daily brief: rumors fly over fate of Pakistani Taliban chief
Speculation Rumors that the current chief of the Pakistani Taliban died of wounds sustained in an alleged U.S. drone strike in mid-January resurfaced yesterday after a state-run Pakistani television station aired reports that he was killed, and two Obama administration officials told the New York Times and the Washington Post they were at least 90 ...
Rumors that the current chief of the Pakistani Taliban died of wounds sustained in an alleged U.S. drone strike in mid-January resurfaced yesterday after a state-run Pakistani television station aired reports that he was killed, and two Obama administration officials told the New York Times and the Washington Post they were at least 90 percent certain Hakimullah Mehsud had died (Wash Post, NYT, The News, Daily Times, WSJ, AP, McClatchy). The Pakistani channel also claimed Hakimullah had been taken to the tribal agency of Orakzai and buried several days ago in the village of Tajaka.
Hakimullah has been reported dead before and later turned up alive, and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) promptly denied the speculation and promised the Taliban leader would appear alive in a video soon (AFP, Reuters, Geo, AJE). If his death is confirmed, however, the TTP has two likely successors for him: Wali ur-Rehman, who leads the movement in South Waziristan and is believed to be the group’s chief military strategist, and Qari Hussain, who trains suicide bombers (NYT, Wash Post, FP).
An alleged U.S. drone strike targeted a compound used by local Taliban militants and the Haqqani network in the village of Muhammad Khel in North Waziristan on Friday night, killing as many as 15 suspected militants (AFP, AP, BBC, NYT, Geo, Reuters). It was the 12th reported strike this year, and members of the Taliban killed two people over the weekend and were dumped on the main road between Datta Khel and Miram Shah in North Waziristan with notes saying they were killed for "spying for the U.S." (Daily Times). The agency is considered a stronghold for the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqanis.
At least 17 people were killed in the main town of northwest Pakistani tribal agency of Bajaur on Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a police checkpoint, signaling the deteriorating security situation in the region where the Pakistani military had declared victory in February 2009 after a major military offensive (AP, Reuters, BBC, Dawn).
The attack came after Pakistani security forces killed upwards of 40 militants in the same area the day before, and was quickly followed by an air assault on the militant hideouts of Mamond and Salarzai, two towns within several miles of the main town of Khar (AFP, Dawn). Two security personnel were killed Sunday by a roadside bomb in Safi town of Mohmand district, which borders Bajaur, and Pakistani security forces say this morning that they have killed 15 suspected militants in Bajaur and gained control of the Taliban’s headquarters in Sewai (AFP, BBC, Reuters, Dawn, Geo).
Suspected militants torched an oil fuel tanker carrying supplies to the war effort in Afghanistan outside Peshawar late last night, underlining the insecurity of supply lines through Pakistan (Dawn, Geo, The News, BBC).
Both sides mistaking each other for the enemy, U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought early Saturday morning in a shootout in Sayyidabad district of the snow-covered Wardak province in central Afghanistan, causing NATO forces to call in an airstrike which left four Afghan soldiers dead (AP, ISAF, Reuters, Wash Post). NATO and Afghan forces have promised to investigate the incident, which is the first friendly-fire since November.
Also in Wardak, an Afghan interpreter shot and killed two U.S. soldiers on Saturday in what one U.S. official termed "a case of a disgruntled employee," rather than a Taliban attack (Reuters, BBC). And a suicide bomber was killed in Zabul province earlier today during a clash with Afghan police (Pajhwok).
Afghanistan’s security forces are still struggling to build up the size of their army and police, though small steps have been made: recruitment levels are higher than in the past, as is the pay for new soldiers (Wash Post). And U.S. Marines continue to prepare for an assault on Marjah, a strategically critical town in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where in the capital of Lashkar Gah suspected Taliban militants have cut 700 meters of power lines to the city from the Kajaki Dam (AFP, Tel, Pajhwok).
Peace talks watch
A Taliban spokesman denied on Saturday that any leaders of the militant movement had met with outgoing U.N. envoy in Afghanistan Kai Eide to discuss potential peace negotiations, as reported last week (AFP, FP). Afghan President Hamid Karzai will reportedly set up a traditional tribal meeting, or jirga, within the next six weeks, though it is unclear whether any militants will attend (Times of London).
Afghanistan’s national sport
Foreign Policy is featuring an impressive photo essay about buzkashi, the unofficial national sport of Afghanistan, in which competitors attempt to carry a headless goat or calf around two poles and and back to the center of the field (FP). The sport is believed to have originated from Mongol horsemen hundreds of years ago.
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