ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 11, 2009 -- The Pakistani Taliban today is like a mafia family whose don has just been whacked -- leaderless, with blood flowing in the streets between rival factions.
U.S. and Pakistani officials now predict that the consiglieres who will stabilize the region's strongest terrorist network are the very people the U.S. has been fighting since 9/11: al Qaeda and Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistani Taliban commanders have been bickering since a CIA drone strike killed their charismatic leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who over the last year and a half managed to pull together at least 13 fractious Taliban factions into a network blamed for the deaths of more than 1,200 people.
Their bickering turned violent over the weekend when Mehsud's most likely successors shot at each other during a meeting to pick the next Pakistani Taliban chief.
In response, Mullah Omar and his allies in North Waziristan, according to people who have spoken with Pakistani intelligence agents there, called a meeting with leading Taliban commanders to try and stop the infighting. A successor to Mehsud could emerge from that meeting in the coming days.
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Mullah Omar was deposed as the leader of Afghanistan in 2001 when U.S. special forces troops invaded and helped rebel Afghan forces route the Taliban. The attack was in retaliation for Mullah Omar harboring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the years before the 9/11 attacks.
The U.S. has been hunting Mullah Omar since, but the secretive one-eyed Taliban leader has eluded his enemies while presiding over a growing Taliban force that has battled the U.S. in the southern part of Afghanistan to a stalemate.
Omar has intervened with the Pakistani Taliban before. He was the only person, according to Aftab Sherpao, Pakistan's interior minister at the time, who could break a deadlock when Mehsud was chosen in 2007.
Al Qaeda's Arab commanders have also been angling to install their own "chief terrorist" as head of the Pakistani Taliban, says Pakistan's current interior minister, Rehman Malik. U.S. and Pakistani officials believe al Qaeda is strongly trying to push the Taliban to choose a leader who will protect their safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas and continue to allow al Qaeda plans to be executed by Taliban fighters.
Both al Qaeda and the Quetta Shura, which Omar heads, "need a support base and they need hide outs," says Amir Rana, head of Pakistan's Institute for Peace Studies. "It will be difficult for them to sustain their operations in Afghanistan if they lose this."
Shifting the Focus Back to Afghanistan
If Omar -- likely with the assistance of Sirajuddin Haqqani and his family's network in North Waziristan -- does choose the next Pakistani Taliban leader, he will likely choose someone who will shift the network's focus from Pakistan back to Afghanistan, where 100,000 international troops are currently fighting a war widely believed to be a stalemate.
That could make Pakistan safer, analysts say, but make the war in Afghanistan more dangerous for U.S. troops. It would also be akin to the militancy during the 1980s and 1990s, when fighters from many countries all fought together in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. When the Pakistani fighters crossed the border home, they would target minority Shiite Muslims or Indian targets in Kashmir instead of Pakistani targets.
But analysts warn that neither Omar nor al Qaeda nor any other commander in the region will have the level of control over Taliban factions that Baitullah Mehsud did. And that means that it is difficult to predict whether the Taliban Movement in Pakistan, as Mehsud's group was known, will be able to focus just on targets in Afghanistan or on targets in Pakistan, or whether many small groups will be choosing their own focus.
"Mehsud was an international figure and he commanded the respect of all the Taliban leaders," Sherpao says. "That sort of a situation is not there anymore."
U.S. officials hope to keep the pressure on the Taliban during these days when it is without a leader. Today an unmanned CIA drone launched at least the 30th strike on the tribal areas this year, according to an ABC News tally. At least one missile hit a hideout for Mehsud's Taliban supporters, according to a U.S. official. At least eight people were killed, the Associated Press reported.
But the U.S. says it also needs the Pakistani military to keep the pressure on the Taliban and to keep a promise to use a ground force to invade South Waziristan, Mehsud's former stronghold.
"The more military pressure, the more likely the Taliban will break up," says a U.S. official.
The Creation of a Local Militia
But Pakistani analysts doubt whether the army is capable or willing to invade South Waziristan, one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet.
Instead, Pakistan may choose to try to create a lashkar, or local militia, in the areas where the Taliban are the strongest. Many of the elders in the greater Mehsud tribe have left South Waziristan and will privately admit they hated Baitullah Mehsud's influence over their area.
But Mehsud elders doubt whether the tribe will fight on behalf of the military."The Taliban are not from the outside. They are our own people, our own sons, our own brothers," says retired major Mohammad Zuman Mehsud, who is from the same area as Baitullah Mehsud but now lives in Karachi. "They will never go against their own people."
Pakistan's army has launched two separate incursions into South Waziristan in the past, each of which ended in peace deals. The U.S. hopes history does not repeat itself -- and that the government's promises to defeat the militants "until the logical conclusion" are not empty.
"It all depends," says a U.S. official, "on which Pakistan chooses to show up."