The de facto chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali-ur-Rehman Mahsud, was killed Wednesday in a suspected CIA drone strike in the terrorist haven of North Waziristan, Pakistani security officials and analysts said.
Mahsud's death leaves the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as it calls itself, without an effective leader, they said, and at its weakest since 2009, when it virtually controlled the seven tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and was rapidly expanding its territory westwards toward the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Mahsud was one of four militants, including an Uzbek al-Qaida activist, killed in the early hours of Wednesday when two missiles fired by a U.S. drone leveled a mud-brick house in the village of Chashma, two miles east of the region's headquarters of Miranshah. Four others were wounded and are being treated at a local hospital.
Although officially designated the deputy head of the TTP, Mahsud has in practice been its chief since last December, when Hakimullah Mahsud was fired in all but name by the terrorist organization's ruling council after ordering the assassination of Tariq Afridi, the TTP chief in the Khyber tribal area.
"After that, the TTP grand council decided Hakim was no longer psychologically fit to lead the TTP, and delegated all authority to Wali. His death will create a crisis of leadership because there is no obvious successor, and Hakim is [in] no position to make a comeback," said Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of research at the Fata Research Center, an independent think tank based in Islamabad.
Officially, Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs Wednesday expressed "serious concerns" at the drone strike, as it always has, on the grounds that they violate its sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.
But it did not comment specifically on the death of Wali Mahsud -- probably because any acknowledgment would heighten public suspicion that the Pakistan's military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency had provided the CIA with his coordinates.
Such cooperation was common practice until November 2011, when 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a clash with U.S. forces on the Afghan border, leading to the temporary closure of Pakistan's roads to lorries carrying non-lethal supplies to U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Mahsud's death came as a new government, led by Nawaz Sharif, is about to assume power after winning Pakistan's May 11 general election. Sharif, who will become prime minister for a record third time when he takes office in June, is convinced the option of a negotiated peace with the TTP should be seriously explored.
His rival, Imran Khan, who heads the Movement for Justice party that won control of the northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, is also pushing for negotiations.
Both have turned to veteran cleric politicians, Sami-ul-Haq and Fazal-ur-Rehman, to act as intermediaries with the TTP, but it is as yet unclear whether the initiative has the backing of Pakistan's overbearing military, which has ruled the country for half its 65-year existence. It currently has 150,000 soldiers -- about a quarter of its military -- deployed in the tribal areas, where fighting continues in three of seven regions.
The army's chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, in April clearly stated his conditions for peace talks: militants would first have to foreswear violence, and swear loyalty to the Pakistani state and the constitution.
The military has regularly used the two cleric politicians to act as intermediaries with Pakistani and Afghan Taliban factions based in the tribal areas.
Sami-ul-Haq is head of the Haqqani seminary at Akora Khattak, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where most Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders were inculcated with jihadist dogma in the 1990s. He is especially close to the leaders of the Haqqani Network, a particularly virulent Afghan Taliban faction notorious for daring suicide attacks on government installations in Kabul.
The network has previously helped Pakistan reach what effectively were ceasefire agreements with Taliban militants, but since last year has been under increasing pressure from the military to relocate its operational headquarters from North Waziristan to Afghan territory, sources in the network have told McClatchy. The network's top commander in the South Waziristan tribal area, Maulvi Nazir, was killed in January in a U.S. drone strike.
Fazal-ur-Rehman is the head of Pakistan's leading religious political party, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), which is on the verge of joining Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party to form a new administration. Many TTP leaders, including the late Mahsud, were former members of the JUI.
Analysts said both clerics could be effective in finding a negotiated peace, because most Pakistan Taliban commanders are war weary and want to find a political way out before they are killed -- whether by drones, in military operations, or assassinated by rivals.
"They are looking for a reasonable, face-saving solution. They know they are in no position to make any demands," said Mansur Mahsud, the think-tank director.
"The few hardliners, like Hakim, all know they are dead men walking, and will fight on to the bitter end."
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.