Why the killing of the Pakistani Taliban's No. 1 might cause a lot more pain for Pakistan than the CIA counted on.
Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most prolific killer, was eliminated on Nov. 1 in a CIA drone strike on his vehicle as it moved through the North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Since 2009, Mehsud had led the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the jihadist umbrella group that has waged war against the Pakistani state, seeking to not only punish Islamabad for its cooperation with the United States in the war on terror, but also impose its own radical version of shariah over Pakistan’s 190 million people.
Mehsud’s organization is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians, politicians, security personnel, and tribal leaders since its founding in 2007. And for that alone, it would be reasonable to assume that his targeted killing would be met with a near-universal positive reaction in Pakistan, despite the strong opposition in the country to U.S. drone attacks.
While many Pakistanis have welcomed the elimination of Mehsud — whose sadistic excesses even rankled fellow militants such as his once-deputy Wali-ur-Rehman — there has also been considerable condemnation of the drone strike. The opposition to Mehsud’s killing largely rests on the timing of the U.S. attack as well as the authority of Washington to conduct strikes on Pakistani soil — an issue that has acquired renewed salience with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s call for an end to drone attacks during his visit to Washington last month.
Many Pakistani politicians — including from the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — claimed that the drone strike sabotaged the prospects of a peace deal with the TTP. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a senior figure in the party, claimed that a delegation of religious scholars were set to meet with representatives of Mehsud in exploratory peace talks. In a press conference on Nov. 2, Nisar asked why the United States had not targeted Mehsud before when he allegedly had crossed into Afghanistan on multiple occasions, and said that he found it curious that Mehsud had never come up in discussions with American officials during his government’s first four months in office, but that the U.S. ambassador had raised the issue of targeting Mehsud all of a sudden in a recent meeting.
It would be a mistake to reflexively dismiss Nisar’s protests as a manifestation of the perfidy or double-speak many associate with Pakistani officials, who have in the past publicly spoken out against drone attacks while supporting them privately. The killing of Mehsud has made the PML-N government, already under severe criticism for its handling of the economy and terrorism, look impotent. In recent weeks, it appears to have invested quite a bit of energy in arranging exploratory talks with the TTP. And on a number of occasions, it had suggested that Washington would give Islamabad space to engage the TTP in talks, including by being more restrained in its conducting of drone attacks.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has been conspicuously silent. No serving military official has spoken on the record about the killing of Mehsud and off-the-record quotes have been sparing in detail. But there is some indication that the Pakistani military may have condoned, if not actively supported, the drone strike.
Retired Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a former military spokesman with close ties to the current army chief, appeared on a major Pakistani talk show on Nov. 1 and spoke out in favor of the attack on Mehsud, providing a detailed account of the terrorist’s crimes against the people of Pakistan. His appearance on television could be part of a military effort to tilt public opinion in favor of the strike without having to publicly endorse the controversial CIA drone strikes on Pakistani soil. And just days before the attack on Mehsud, the Pakistani Defense Ministry, whose day-to-day operations are run by a recently retired lieutenant general, issued an unbelievable report to parliament claiming that there were zero civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks in 2012. The report had the appearance of an attempt to sanitize the drone campaign just before a big hit with the tacit support of the Pakistani military.
The military has chafed at the prospect of peace talks with the TTP, and for much of this year the Pakistani army has, in fact, expressed its discomfort with the conciliatory, if not apologetic, approach of center-right and Islamist politicians toward the TTP. In May, the now-outgoing army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called on Pakistan’s politicians and general public to support the fight against militants who, in his words, seek to impose their "distorted ideology" on Pakistan by force. In August, he had said that "bowing down" to militants is no solution to terrorism. And in September, after the TTP killed a major general and threatened to kill Kayani next, the army chief said that, though giving the dialogue process with militants a chance was "understandable," there should be no "misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms."
Indirectly rebuking pro-talks politicians, such as Imran Khan, who have claimed that military operations have failed to resolve the issue of terrorism, Kayani said that the army "has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists." And last month, as the PML-N pushed forward with talks with the TTP, despite the pace of terrorist attacks continuing unabated, Kayani once again reluctantly embraced talks with militants, and — in an expression of concern over the compromises conservative politicians might make with jihadists — stressed that any negotiations must take place within the bounds of the constitution. Having lost thousands of soldiers in its fight with the TTP, the Pakistani army is in no mood to make peace with the militant group — and the CIA strike that killed Mehsud could have provided the Pakistani Army with a way to scuttle the civilian government’s outreach to the TTP.
Undoubtedly, Hakimullah Mehsud’s hands were drenched with the blood of Pakistanis. Duplicitous and extreme even among extremists, talks with Mehsud were bound to fail. But the current democratically elected government, though misguided in its choice to engage the TTP leader, should have been given a chance to fail. Instead, the killing of Mehsud — just as preliminary talks were set to begin — has allowed some Pakistani politicians to blame the United States for their failure, and the mass murderer has even been branded by some Islamists as a "martyr."
There is good reason to have let the dialogue process reach a natural death. Public support for Pakistani military operations has waned considerably from its peak in 2009. Voters in two of the country’s provinces brought to power parties that had campaigned in favor of talks with the TTP. A better approach might have been to allow the talks with Mehsud to go forward and fail. The proving of the TTP’s bad intentions would have given the civilian government the justification and public support to order military operations against the group in North Waziristan. Alternatively, the civilian government should have been brought on board in what appears to have been a decision by the United States — possibly with the direct or indirect support of the Pakistani military — to target Mehsud, allowing Islamabad to recalibrate and publicly state that it would be willing to speak with other TTP commanders, but not Mehsud.
But now, the killing of Mehsud has exacerbated divisions within Pakistan’s polity, and probably also between its civilian and military leadership. The deepening polarization in Pakistan over the question of how to deal with the TTP advances the designs of the terrorist group. Prior to the general elections in May, the TTP mainly targeted Pakistan’s secular parties, seeking to divide them and the center-right and Islamist parties. Since the election of center-right parties at the federal level and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the TTP has tried to foment divisions between these parties and the military, saying that it would resume negotiations with Islamabad if the new, center-right governments in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa developed a stance on the war on terror independent from the military. The Taliban strategy has proved effective, with the political class spending much of its time lobbing accusations and invective at one another. Pro-talks politician Imran Khan has been called "Taliban Khan" by his detractors, while he and others have derided the anti-talks voices as "liberal fascists." Similarly, more latent tensions seem to exist between the civilians and the military on the issue of talking to the TTP.
Pakistan will be a safer place when its democratically elected civilian government authors and owns a national security strategy that provides a comprehensive game plan for ridding the country of the terrorists that harm Pakistanis and those outside its borders. Such a strategy would have to go far beyond militant leadership decapitation, clearing operations, and open-ended calls for talks. It would require figuring out not only how to calibrate the use of both talking and fighting, but also simultaneously building the state’s capacity to offer justice and security in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan. Militancy in Pakistan thrives in large part on a broken justice system, compromised and under-equipped police services, and a border region with Afghanistan that is governed under an archaic British-era law that engages in collective punishment. Institutional reform is required nationwide. Pakistan’s anti-terrorism courts have high acquittal rates, mainly due to the absence of a witness protection program. Its detention facilities are highly insecure, with two major prison breaks in as many years. In the end, the best antidote to anti-state insurgency is a strong, legitimate state that implements the rule of law.
Militant leadership decapitation alone has proved to be limited in effectiveness in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While al Qaeda has been weakened in Pakistan, militant groups native to both countries have endured the targeted killings of their commanders. The TTP’s founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA drone strike in 2009, but the TTP — which had also been hammered by Pakistani military operations that year — managed a resurgence, extending its tentacles deep into the country’s southern port city of Karachi and has even developed ties with Afghan intelligence.
Even as Islamabad reached out to Hakimullah Mehsud, the militant leader did not shy away from attacking the Pakistani state. But with its leader now gone, the TTP will likely have to make more ferocious demonstrations of its wrath. In the short term, Pakistan will probably see a surge in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. There will likely be more fighting among the major parties and between civilian and military officials, as well, over the question of how to move forward and bring an end to the terror and the drone attacks that Pakistani officials have said will wind down soon. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must appoint a new army chief by the end of this month, and candidates include generals with far less restraint than the current army chief, Gen. Kayani. Hakimullah Mehsud may be dead, but his killing could haunt Pakistan for the months, if not years, to come.