Three days after a CIA drone strike killed the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, his two most likely successors apparently killed each other when they opened fire at a meeting to decide the next commander, according to initial reports provided to Pakistani intelligence officials.
Hakimullah and Wali Ur Rehman were both killed, a senior military official said, during a shootout in South Waziristan. The two were attending a tribal meeting, or shura, designed to choose the successor of Taliban in Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed early Wednesday morning.
The incident could throw a Taliban already suffering from internal clashes into disarray. It also eliminated the two most popular choices to lead the group responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in the country's history.
But the Taliban denied that the incident took place and Rehman Malik, the country's interior minister, told local television channels that he believed only one of the two commanders died in the gun battle.
Either way, the infighting is a direct result of the most significant strike on a militant commander in years.
Publicly, the Pakistani government has criticized the strikes from unmanned aerial drones, such as the one that killed Mehsud.
But privately they have provided significantly expanded intelligence help to the United States since last summer, Pakistani officials admit. Combined with increased targeting technology, the drone attacks became much more accurate, and the Bush administration increased their number.
Pakistani officials say, by early this year, the targets changed, shifting mainly from al Qaeda leadership and commanders most responsible for attacks in Afghanistan to the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani officials had been complaining that the United States was not targeting Mehsud; by this summer, the strikes had focused almost entirely on him. Nine of the last 10 strikes, according to an ABC News tally, targeted Mehsud or his network.
The change in targets and the successful targeting of Mehsud has led Pakistani officials to celebrate his death, even if it came from a missile fired from an American drone flying in Pakistani airspace.
"As a sovereign country we cannot condone, ever, drone attacks," Farahnaz Ispahani, President Asif Ali Zardari's spokeswoman, said in an interview. "If [Mehsud] is dead, though, it's unfortunate if it happened because of a drone attack, but as I said, with this particular case, at the end of the day, the end justifies the means."
Mehsud was responsible for creating and holding together a nexus of terrorists in Pakistan, most notably a new relationship between the mostly Pashtun Taliban and the Arab fighters of al Qaeda.
"They were relying on Baitullah Mehsud as a franchisee, to provide them support and to hide their people and to give logistic support," says Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
Pakistani and U.S. officials as well as independent analysts all say it is extremely important that Pakistan and the United States keep the pressure on militant commanders, given the lack of leadership.
U.S. officials say they will not reduce their targeting of Pakistani Taliban. But in return for the successful targeting of Mehsud, U.S. officials will expect the Pakistani government and military to help fight terrorism in the region by expanding their own targets.
"The United States will be pressing Pakistan behind closed doors saying, 'Look, we've done this important job for you, we've not only hurt the [Taliban in Pakistan], we've also taken out its leadership,'" Nawaz said. "It's time that you helped us now by making sure al Qaeda is routed inside South Waziristan, not simply roused but routed, so that it doesn't have another place in which it can hide."
For her part, Ispahani said the government understood how important it was to strike before the Taliban had a change to strike back.
"If Baitullah Mehsud is dead, this is the time to strike," she said. "Because while the Taliban is in flux looking for new leadership, we need to get in there in … whatever way necessary."
A third leading Taliban commander, Azmat Ullah, reportedly survived the shootout, and now becomes the most likely successor. Most recently he has been in charge of Tank, a city just outside of South Waziristan, but not much is known about him.