ISLAMABAD – Finding and killing Pakistan's most-wanted militant was a difficult task. Proving his death may be even harder.
Most indicators point to Baitullah Mehsud's death in a CIA missile strike last week, and the U.S. government says it's "90 percent" sure of it.
But the Pakistani and U.S. governments will have a tough time confirming the death because the Taliban control the South Waziristan region, a remote, mountainous tribal area where the drone-fired missile reportedly destroyed the home of Mehsud's father-in-law. While officials initially talked of sending a team to collect DNA from the site, that possibility now looks increasingly dim.
"At the moment, it is inaccessible," military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Tuesday, adding that a planned ground operation in South Waziristan is still pending while aerial assaults soften up the area by bombing militant targets.
In the absence of a body, the Taliban and the Pakistani government have been waging competing propaganda campaigns over the state of the militants' leadership.
Pakistani officials and a rival militant commander at one point suggested that not only was Mehsud dead, but also his two top deputies — supposedly slain in a shootout over succession. Both deputies later telephoned reporters.
Mehsud's followers insist he is alive and well.
The Taliban could prove their case by producing a video of Mehsud. Taliban commanders were promised that Mehsud would address them by wireless radio Sunday night; instead, his two deputies came on the air urging followers not to be discouraged, a militant commander told The Associated Press.
A posting on an international jihadist Web site recently suggests that doubts may be spreading even among hard-line Islamists. The message, translated by the SITE institute that monitors extremist traffic, proclaims "Baitullah Mehsud is Alive in Pakistan!" But it also asks the Pakistani Taliban to "provide us any material or videos on this subject" — a carefully worded appeal for proof.
The best evidence of Mehsud's demise may eventually come with the emergence of a new leader of his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, said political analyst Mohammed Amir Rana. The Pakistani Taliban is a loose alliance of tribal groups, and there have been reports of infighting in talks on who will succeed Mehsud as leader.
"I think the Taliban is trying to hide his killing, because right now there is a conflict going on for the new leader," said Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
They have adopted a similar tactic in the past. Hard-line militants in Waziristan denied the 2004 killing of then-leader Nek Mohammad for weeks until a successor was named, Rana said, adding, "I think they are following the same strategy here."
The Taliban's propaganda may be intended to hide their divisions, but it's also in the government's interest to highlight — or even exaggerate — any disagreements in the militant ranks.
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban, said any discord among the Taliban is probably embellished by the government's own propaganda efforts.
"Most of it, I think, is an intelligence game going on by authorities," Yousafzai said. "This news is being planted and these kinds of stories are being spread."
Days after reports of Mehsud's death surfaced, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that clashes had erupted in a meeting, or shura, to decide a successor and that one or both of the leading contenders — Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman — had been killed or wounded.
The next day, a militant commander known to be a rival of Baitullah Mehsud told local television that both potential successors were dead and that the Taliban was in complete disarray.
By pushing the idea of a Taliban in chaos, the government hopes to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, sowing discord among the militants and weakening their allies' faith, said Rana. "It's aimed both at the Taliban to create division and at the public to boost morale."
Faced with rumors of their deaths, Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud hastened to telephone reporters to deny the reports — and both also insisted Mehsud was alive. The Taliban leader, however, is not known to have made any phone calls.