You can’t win just by killing Taleban leaders

Few tears will be shed for Baitullah Mehsud, except among the Taleban militants. He took responsibility for the slaughter of hundreds of ordinary Pakistanis, quite apart from attacks on the army and police.

But the Pakistani public will take some convincing that he really is dead. Pakistanis tend to treat most US statements as automatically false, and are sceptical about the claims of their own Government. Many, too, believe in feverish conspiracy theories that attribute terrorism, not to the Taleban, but to agents of India, or even the US.

Among more sensible Pakistanis, the question will be how much difference Mehsud’s death will make. The Pakistani Taleban are much less united even their Afghan allies, and rather than a supreme commander, Mehsud was like the chairman of a squabbling board.

In Swat, where I am now, people think that the campaign against the Taleban here is much more important — and they are probably right. “It’s an American mistake to think that you can win this war by bumping off one commander after another,” a Pakistani officer told me. “There’s always another bastard to take his place. What you have to do is smash the miscreant forces and reoccupy the territory.”

That is what the Pakistani Army believes it is doing. After two years in which the Taleban continually extended their power, in the past three months a determined offensive has cleared them from the valley, breaking them into small groups and driving them into the mountains.

The campaign involved massive firepower, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee, but as I drove up here we passed one truck and bus after another loaded with the possessions of people returning to their homes.

The soldiers I have talked with are confident that the Taleban have been smashed in Swat and cannot come back. Businessmen in Peshawar and elsewhere are much more confident in the future than when I talked with them a year ago. However, there is such a thing as overconfidence and overconfidence led me to stay on the streets of Swat’s capital, Mingora, after dark.

During the curfew these streets take on a very different appearance from their bustling daylight face. Edgy soldiers at checkpoints clearly think that Taleban car bombs remain a very real threat.

Many ordinary Pakistanis still think that negotiations, not war with the Taleban, are the best way forward. So the death of Mehsud and the reconquest of Swat seem like a good beginning, but only that.

Anatol Lieven, a professor of war studies at King’s College London.