Hakimullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader in Pakistan who was declared dead in January, is in fact alive, a senior intelligence official in Pakistan has said.
The news comes amid renewed criticism of the CIA’s secret and controversial drone program, and could serve as a setback to US efforts to contain the Taliban in Pakistan.
Hakimullah Mehsud succeeded former Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, after the latter was killed in a suspected CIA drone strike. Hakimullah proved to be just as lethal, if not more than, his predecessor: He was said to be one of the masterminds behind a suicide bombing in December that killed seven CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan.
Following that incident, the CIA sharply ramped up efforts to eliminate Hakimullah, unleashing a barrage of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt, according to the Associated Press. At first it appeared they’d hit their quarry; in January, Pakistan’s interior minister declared Hakimullah dead.
Hakimullah’s death was hailed by international media as a major victory. But neither the CIA nor Pakistan’s intelligence agency confirmed the death, the Guardian points out. And the Taliban themselves always insisted Hakimullah was alive, adds Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper
Now, Pakistani officials apparently agree.
“He is alive,” a senior intelligence official in Pakistan, speaking anonymously, told the Guardian. “He had some wounds but he is basically OK.”
The Taliban themselves have not released a statement or brought Hakimullah forward to prove his alive.
What his possible survival means in practical terms is not clear. Intelligence officials told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that Hakimullah has lost clout within the Pakistani Taliban since January. It is not inconceivable, however, that he could regain the position he lost through a power struggle.
His survival, if true, is also likely to fuel an already simmering debate. Many already question the program, which is conducted in complete secrecy without Congressional oversight.
A recent House Committee on drone strikes sharply questioned the legality of the CIA’s program. Scholars testifying at the hearing called the strikes “a clear violation of international law,” reports the AP.
CIA spokesman George Little responded that the program is conducted in strict accordance with the law.
Others have recently prodded the CIA to finally admit the drone program even exists. In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, both of the New America Foundation, called the program the “world’s worst-kept secret.” Coming clean, the authors argued, could help tamp down popular outrage in Pakistan about the strikes.