Mehsud's Death: One Small Step For Obama, One Giant Leap For CIA?

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The most wanted terrorist in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, is most likely in repose, the result of a successful jointed intelligence operation mounted by the U.S. Air Force equipment, the CIA operations officers and Pakistan's ISI. Mehsud, according to a United Nations report not disputed by the intelligence community, has been responsible for about 80% of the terrorism-related carnage in Pakistan, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. A former ISI asset, Meshud is responsible for the deaths of American soldiers, too. In March, he promised a "spectacular" attack against Washington, D.C.

It's easy to speculate how his death will effect Pakistani public opinion toward the U.S, but I'm not an expert, and so I'll leave the speculation to others. Mehsud was an enemy of the government, but he is one of many, and his organization remains intact.

Domestically, the death may help solve a legitimacy problem the administration is confronting.

President Obama and his generals have been inundated with bad news from Afghanistan and even worse news about the public's willingness to tolerate the U.S. presence there. As the administration completes its latest theater-wide review, it's widely expected that the options given to the president will be pared down to two: if you want to win, we need a lot more troops and money. If we think the region is stable enough, we should begin to leave.

The Obama administration would prefer to "win" -- that is, significantly weaken the Taliban infrastructure in Pakistan and Afghanistan and isolate Al Qaeda, but it is by no means clear that Congress agrees that this goal ought to be a foreign policy priority. There is almost zero political will among Democrats in the House, in particular, to significantly increase funding for what's now called "overseas contingency operations." Yesterday, administration counterterroism chief John Brennan made it clear that the fight against Al Qaeda cannot be won without priority being given to "upstream" factors like development, civil society and engagement. The irony -- and what makes the administration anxious -- is that if Congress refuses to spend more money, the military and intelligence arms of the war will be prioritized over the building of civil society and the engagement with Afghans and Pakistanis.    

The morale of the CIA's National Clandestine Service doesn't seem to be that high, although, honestly, I don't know whether this is true -- it's what I hear, but that shop is closed. This successful mission may boost spirits. We don't know how the Predator drones tracked Mehsud, but HUMINT -- either involving a unilateral U.S. asset, an asset controlled by a foreign intelligence agency, or an asset run by the Pakistani intelligence service, almost certainly played a significant part. Getting info is hard enough, but turning a tip into action requires a functioning CIA bureaucracy. The bureaucracy worked efficiently enough in this case. (One can only speculate how the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency might have helped, too.) Cooperation between the CIA and Pakistani's ISI -- which has long tried to play all sides of the conflict -- will probably change for the better.  American intelligence officials are now able to believe that the ISI isn't actually protecting dangerous tribal leaders, even though I'm sure that some might think Mehsud was deliberately sacrificed in order to advance the ISI-American relationship, which is just as critical to the stability of Pakistan as the ISI-Taliban relationship.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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