The Pakistani Taliban's deputy commander was believed killed in a U.S. drone strike along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials.
The strike, which took place early this morning, comes just days after President Obama spoke publicly about the controversial drone attacks, announcing restrictions on how and where they would be used, including in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials said Wali ur Rehman was killed in the strike in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal region along the border. A senior U.S. official confirmed Rehman was targeted and was believed dead, but said there had been no official confirmation. U.S. officials often wait for confirmation from the Taliban themselves, but so far, the Taliban have not confirmed Rehman's death.
Rehman is the deputy commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, often referred to as the TTP. The U.S. State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. The State Department describes him as "the TTP's chief military strategist" who "led several attacks against U.S., NATO, and Pakistani forces on either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border." The department also accuses Rehman of recruiting new fighters to join the Taliban.
Pakistani officials have repeatedly denounced the controversial drone strikes, saying they're against international law and a violation of the country's sovereignty, although Pakistan's former prime minister and ex-military commander, Pervez Musharraf, recently admitted his government had signed off on a limited number of strikes. In response to today's strike, Pakistan's foreign ministry issued a statement expressing "serious concerns," but stopped short of denouncing it altogether.
Pakistan's newly elected opposition leader, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, strongly condemned the attack on Twitter. Both Khan and Pakistan's new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, oppose the U.S. drone strikes, and Khan has previously suggested the drones should be shot down. Sharif's ruling party, the Pakistani Muslim League-N, won't officially be sworn into government until June 1.
When asked about drone strikes during his campaign, Sharif told ABC News the drones were "a violation of our sovereignty," but remained non-committal when asked if he would order the Pakistani military to shoot them down.
If the reports of Rehman's death are true, it would be a big blow to the Taliban and its senior leadership, though it is unclear how long lasting the repercussions will be. The Pakistani Taliban is a coalition of militant groups, each with their own tribal and ethnic loyalties. Infighting among the TTP is common, and each sub-group is primarily loyal to its own clan. Pakistani Taliban commanders have been killed in the past, only to quickly be replaced. Like most militant groups, the TTP has a hierarchical structure with others ready to move up the ladder.
Collectively, they operate in the lawless tribal regions, along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The area is generally off limits for journalists, making it difficult to independently verify information in the region.
The Pakistani Taliban generally focus their attacks primarily on targets within Pakistan, although they are believed to provide safe havens and safe passage for militants who conduct cross-border attacks on US targets in Afghanistan.