LONDON — Pakistani Taliban commanders met Saturday to choose a successor to Hakimullah Mehsud, their leader who was killed Friday in a US drone strike, as mainstream political leaders stepped up their criticism of the United States and vowed to press ahead with peace talks.
Pakistani officials said the Taliban shura, or governing council, had started to gather at a mosque in Miram Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, on Friday night.
Early Saturday, the Taliban buried Mehsud, who had a $5 million US bounty on his head, and six others in Danday Darpakhel, the village where they were killed.
Officials said Mehsud was wounded beyond recognition, after several missiles hit the vehicle in which he was traveling as it entered a compound in the village on Friday.
Four candidates are thought to be in the running to replace Mehsud, in an opaque process riven with tribal rivalry and personality-driven tensions.
‘It is the murder of peace in this region.’Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, on the US drone strike that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud on Friday
The favorite, Pakistani officials and militants said, is Khan Said, a commander who had been a rival to Mehsud and was thought to have the support of powerful factions, including the Haqqani network.
Speaking by telephone, a Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, said a winner would be decided “within a few days.”
Mehsud’s death represented another success against the Pakistani Taliban for the CIA, which killed his deputy, Wali ur-Rehman, in May. To the Obama administration, the killing of a high-profile enemy offered a welcome diversion from a growing debate in the United States over civilian casualties from drone strikes.
In a show of defiance, tribesmen opened fire with AK-47s and other small arms on US drones hovering over Miram Shah.
Despite the technological prowess and laser-guided precision of US drones, their political effects can be messy and unpredictable, as has become evident yet again in Pakistan.
Senior ministers and opposition politicians united in condemning the drone strike, which they called a US effort to doom putative peace talks with the Taliban, with some advocating that Pakistan should cut US military supply lines into Afghanistan in response.
The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said the US ambassador had been summoned to protest the strike. “It is the murder of peace in this region,” he said.
Imran Khan, the former cricket star whose party runs Khyber Paktunkhwa province, said his party would vote Monday to cut NATO military supply lines into Afghanistan that run through the province. He described Mehsud as being ready to talk peace, and he painted the drone strike that killed him as a defining moment for the country’s political parties. “The nation is asking who does not want peace in the country,” he said at a news conference in Lahore.
In Waziristan, tribesmen also criticized the Obama administration for killing Mehsud when he was on the verge of talks. “The drones have destroyed everything,” Jamaluddin Khan, a teacher, said by phone.
Others lamented that in death, Mehsud — a flamboyant figure with a reputation both for joking and for ruthless violence — would be transformed into a hero. “One thing is clear: Anyone who is killed in a drone strike becomes a true Muslim holy warrior, no matter how sinful he is,” said a tribal elder, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Few people dared voice public support for Mehsud’s death, with the main exception being retired military officials, which highlighted an apparent divide between military and civilian thinking over the virtues of peace negotiations.
The military has bitter experience of talks with the Taliban, having entered into several controversial agreements from 2005 to 2007 that eventually crumbled and ultimately gave the militants time to consolidate their strength.
If it seemed odd that Pakistanis were equivocating over the demise of a figure who spent his career orchestrating attacks that killed thousands of Pakistanis, the reason lied in a complex mix of politics and psychology.
Anti-Americanism is rife in Pakistan, and the drones are widely despised — with the exception of some corners of the tribal belt, where some tribesmen quietly say they support any measure to oust militants from their area.
“It shows how society has become radicalized,” said Omar R. Quraishi, an editor at The Express Tribune newspaper. “People keep asking why the Americans are violating our sovereignty. They don’t seem to realize that, in the tribal regions, the state has lost all control.”