News reports indicate that the most wanted Islamic militant leader in Pakistan is dead and buried. In the last few years Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Mehsud tribe, transformed a local militant movement in the Northwest Frontier Province into a national security challenge for the Pakistani state.
Drone technology has changed the nature of the war against Islamic militants
After the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, suicide bombings attributed to his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group became a routine feature in the Pakistani landscape. It is widely believed that Baitullah is responsible for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (what was she doing with her head out of the specially provided armoured vehicle anyway!).
Celebrations among the Pakistani security establishment will be short lived. There is no indication that Baitullah's death means that the hostility of tribes in Waziristan towards a Pakistani military presence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) will diminish.
Apparently, a tribal shura has been meeting for three days now to choose the new 'Emir.' All three frontrunners for the position are existing local commanders within the Baitullah network.
The sad reality is that once the new leader of the TTP has been annointed he will wish to brandish his credentials among his followers with a new deadly campaign against the Pakistani state. The calls for revenge among the foot soldiers will be loud.
The Pakistani government has either to renegotiate a peace deal with Baitullah's successor and convince him to focus his efforts on fighting foreign forces in Afghanistan or the government can attempt to strike the group militarily while it is in a weakened state due to the leadership vacuum / transition.
My recommendation, keep the military pressure cooking but do not send ground troops into the battle (at least not just yet). Military pressure means continued coordination with the US on the use of drones and regular attacks by fighter aircraft or helicopter gunships, as dictated by the target. Specialized mobile ground troops can be inserted for specific action if necessary, but in this era of drones when is that a necessity?
Pursuing a major ground offensive is setting the military up for failure. The Pakistani military has just redeemed itself through the Swat operation and another failure in FATA will have negative repercussions throughout the nation. Questions about the state's ability to take on Islamic extremists may develop into feelings of acquiescence and seep into the political debate.
Along with the stick a carrot must be offered, to some tribes at any rate.
Those tribes which may see an opportunity to break away from the hegemony of the Mehsuds' should be encouraged to go their separate way. The tribal chiefs, like all genuine leaders, want to see development of their region as a way to appease the constituency. Promises (and ultimately delivery) of massive amounts of money poured into schools, roads and other basic infrastructure may help in isolating the extremist groups from the tribes willing to work with Islamabad.
The next few months will be critical in determining the new security environment for Pakistan. The military's dilemma is real � strike quickly while the iron is hot and risk alienating some tribes further or sue for peace from a strengthened position knowing full well that ultimately the tribes will always determine their own fate.