Pakistani Taliban vows revenge over leader's death in drone strike

The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed Friday by a U.S. drone strike, according to reports by American and Pakistani intelligence. Judy Woodruff speaks with the New York Times’ Declan Walsh on Mehsud's role in the Taliban and the terrorist organization's vow to carry out revenge strikes.


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States dealt the Pakistani Taliban a major blow today, killing its leader. American and Pakistani intelligence officials reported Hakimullah Mehsud died in a U.S. drone strike. He had just arrived at a compound near Miranshah in northern Waziristan, after attending a gathering of Taliban leaders.

For more, we turn to Declan Walsh of The New York Times. He's in London tonight.

Declan Walsh, welcome.

First of all, is it definitely confirmed that Mehsud is dead?

DECLAN WALSH, The New York Times: Well, there have been several reports in the past, of course, that he died which turned out to be false.

But on this occasion, all of the reports, whether they be Pakistani, Taliban, or American, are suggesting that indeed Mr. Mehsud is dead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So tell us who he was. And what -- what was his role in the Taliban?

DECLAN WALSH: Well, the Pakistani -- Hakimullah Mehsud took over as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in 2009 after his predecessor, a man called Baitullah Mehsud, was also killed in an American drone strike.

And he was a young, a very charismatic and in some ways flamboyant leader, but he also had a very ruthless streak. Under him, the Pakistani Taliban had carried out attacks across Pakistani cities and, indeed, had launched one attack in the United States. The attempted suicide bombing in Times Square of May 2010 was carried out by a man who said that he'd been trained by the Pakistani Taliban and, indeed, who said that he was motivated by the drone strike campaign in the tribal belt to carry out that attack, a drone strike campaign that has now claimed one of its biggest prizes, really, in the death of Mr. Mehsud.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how big a loss is this for the Taliban?

DECLAN WALSH: Difficult to say at this stage.

After his predecessor was killed in 2009, it didn't take very long for the Pakistani Taliban to bounce back and go on to a whole series of other bombings. On the other hand, the Pakistani government in recent weeks has been talking about engaging the Taliban in peace talks. And they are relatively weak compared to some previous years.

So there is a sense that this could provide the momentum for talks with the Taliban between the Pakistani government and the Taliban when they are in a position of weakness. But the Taliban themselves have told our reporters in the tribal belt that they're furious at this, that they blame the Pakistani government, and they're already vowing to take revenge in an unspecified way, but most likely involving a bombing campaign in Pakistan over the coming weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about that, but I also want to ask you about those peace talks, because we know this comes soon after the Pakistani prime minister was in the United States. He was calling for a stop, an end to these drone strikes. So how does this -- how do you see the timing of this?

DECLAN WALSH: Well, for the CIA, this comes at a particularly striking moment.

Only last week, as you say, we had the Pakistani prime minister, Mr. Sharif, in Washington meeting President Obama. One of the issues they discussed was drones. The Pakistani government has very vocally opposed the drone campaign, even though there are many indications that in private they have approved at least some of these strikes.

There's also been a lot of attention recently from human rights groups about civilian casualties. The U.S. government claims that the drone campaign is extremely accurate, has killed very few people, but Amnesty International brought out a report last week which suggested that in one instance a 67-year-old grandmother was killed; in another, 18 laborers were accidentally killed as they waited to take a meal at the end of the day.

So it's a very contentious program, but for the CIA, this is certainly -- or for the American government, rather, this is a way to show that the campaign can also be extremely accurate and can take out people who are a danger not only to the United States, but also to Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So -- so, in terms of knowing whether the government of Pakistan would have agreed with this, had given a green light or opposed it, what is your reading of that?

DECLAN WALSH: As with many aspects of the drone campaign, we simply don't know for sure.

There is a lot to suggest that previous Pakistani governments certainly encouraged some drone strikes and cooperated with others. Mr. Sharif's government has insisted -- in public, at least -- that it has nothing to do with the drone campaign and that it only opposes it.

But what goes on behind drone -- behind closed doors with the drones, because, of course, this is a covert campaign, is really very difficult to tell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, again, there is some sense now that they may retaliate?

DECLAN WALSH: That's right. The Pakistani Taliban has vowed to carry out revenge strikes for this death. Mr. Mehsud's funeral is due to take place tomorrow, on Saturday, in the tribal belt.

But I think, across the country, Pakistanis are really going to be viewing this with some apprehension and will be bracing themselves for possible retaliatory strikes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Declan Walsh of The New York Times, we thank you.

DECLAN WALSH: My pleasure.