Hakimullah Mehsud, the ruthless chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorist franchise is dead, killed by a U.S. drone strike on the evening of Nov. 1. On his watch, the Taliban killed, injured, and maimed thousands of Pakistanis—civilians and soldiers. He was physically present when Sultan Amir Tarar, a retired colonel better known by his nom de guerre Colonel Imam, was executed in cold blood.
Mehsud, if he could be brought to trial, should have ended up being sentenced to death thousands of times, a fate that should also befall other terrorists. Yet, the timing of his killing and the fact that he was taken out by the U.S. create a major problem for two reasons: one, the Pakistani government has repeatedly made clear that such strikes, in the absence of state consent, violate Pakistan’s sovereignty; two, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government, supported by other political parties, had taken a policy decision to talk to the Taliban and try to resolve this issue peacefully. The strike that took out Mehsud may well spell the death of that initiative.
The argument that Pakistan, from years X to Y, was in on the strikes and therefore the issue of consent cannot be used to decry the strikes fails to account for the fact that post-Year Y Pakistan has made it clear, repeatedly, that it is opposed to them. Given where the law stands and as it exists (lex lata), regardless of U.S. attempts to create new legal realities, if Pakistan has withdrawn its consent, the strikes are illegal. Once this fact is accepted, there can be no cherry-picking. In other words, Pakistan cannot condone a strike that takes out a Taliban terrorist while condemning those strikes that take out Afghan Taliban commanders or even Al Qaeda terrorists. All strikes must be condemned.
The second issue relates to the timing. Regardless of what one thinks of talking to the Taliban, and I am one of the biggest skeptics, once a democratically-elected government has decided to take that route, the decision has to be accepted. Acceptance of something is not synonymous with liking it. The PMLN government had made clear that while it is resolved to give peace a chance, let the effort not be misconstrued as a sign of weakness. For good measure, the government also gave teeth to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 and the president signed the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance into law.
Let me reiterate here my position on talking to the Taliban: Talking and fighting are not mutually exclusive. This is also not the first time that a government has tried talking to them. Previous rounds of talks and various deals, except two—one with the late Maulvi Nazir, the other with Hafiz Gul Bahadur—collapsed. Given the Taliban’s exclusionary ideology, as also their millenarianism, expecting them to accept the terms of any agreement that doesn’t give them all does seem naïve.
Still, two points need to be raised. One, the question of who is fighting is an important one. Hakimullah Mehsud has been killed by a U.S. drone, not a Pakistani shell. That makes a difference. Two, unlike previous attempts at talking to the Taliban, this one sought to pull the franchise headquarters into a dialogue. It was not a local affair, at least on the drawing board.
This means, essentially, that if the talks had moved forward, the onus of controlling the multiple groups that form the franchise would have been on Mehsud and his senior commanders. There were two possibilities: either they could control those groups or they couldn’t. In the latter case, the government could legitimately operate against recalcitrant groups without necessarily getting out of the talks mode altogether.
Those who are lamenting his killing as if Mehsud was Mother Teresa’s brother should pour some realism over their simplistic approaches to talking to the Taliban.
The ball would have been in the Taliban’s court. If the Taliban HQ had sided with the irreconcilable groups, the government could break off the talks. On the other hand, if the Taliban consented to government action against groups that did not accept the Taliban’s authority, the government could isolate groups that needed the application of force from those that were amenable to talking.
Critics can say that this is a theoretical construct. Sure, it is. Every plan of action begins thus. Not every plan of action succeeds either. But one can argue, accepting that an elected government has the right to take a majority decision, that this plan didn’t have much to lose. We are at war with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, a franchise whose terrorist credentials do not need further proof. That’s not an issue in dispute. By that very logic, shifting to fighting if the talks failed would have simply meant going back to status quo ante.
The gains, on the other hand, can be expressed in three possible scenarios: the Taliban could control its various groups and talks could move forward meaningfully; the Taliban could not control some of the groups and the government could fight those groups while talking to those amenable to dialogue (or, even better, the Taliban could actually help the government fight those it could not control). Finally, the talks could have failed to make any headway in which case the government could resume fighting by having the necessary public buy-in.
That plan has gone south with Mehsud’s killing. Why did the U.S. kill Mehsud just days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington, where he explained to President Barack Obama his government’s intention to open dialogue with the Taliban? Going by what we gathered from government sources about the visit and the parleys, Obama had said that the U.S. would not do anything that could scuttle the talks. Did something change?
In his Nov. 2 presser, Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, accused the U.S. of sabotaging the talks. Unless Khan meant something else, what he said was more than a hint at a nefarious U.S. agenda. In fact, he stressed the need to review U.S.-Pakistan relations.
That being the case, and unless Khan was being dramatic, why would other PMLN leaders on Sharif’s team, as also Sharif himself, call the U.S. visit a success or think, one should say naively, that the U.S. would not muddy the waters given its agenda? Clearly, if Khan is right, then Team Sharif knew what the U.S. agenda is and it would be somewhat of a stretch to argue that they woke up to it only on Friday evening when the drone took out Mehsud.
If Khan has evidence of the involvement in Pakistan of hostile “foreign agencies,” he must share it rather than referring to it in the mealy-mouthed fashion that he did at the presser. This is as good a time as any. Also, if a review of U.S.-Pakistan relations is in order then Sharif must inform the nation of what exactly transpired during his U.S. visit.
On the other hand, after the 2009 Forward Operation Base Chapman attack in which a Jordanian, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, killed 7 CIA operatives, the U.S. had put a bounty on Mehsud, who was seen sitting with the Jordanian in a video released by the Taliban. Could it be that given the U.S. argument about the window of opportunity, the CIA took out Mehsud without much reference to the larger strategic picture that should govern U.S.-Pakistan relations? That is possible. Washington itself has five shops when it comes to dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan. If true, this raises the question of the extent to which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are in control of field operations. If they are not, we have a problem on our hands. If they are and this strike went through with their knowledge, we have an even bigger problem to deal with.
Just days before he was killed, the Urdu newspaper Nai Baat published Mehsud’s Eid message to Pakistanis which, while accepting that the Taliban will not put any preconditions on the talks or accept any from the government, made clear that the Taliban was fighting for establishing khilafat and Shariah in Pakistan and would not rest content until Muslims were united from the Caucuses to the Sahara. The Taliban agenda is quite clear.
However, Mehsud’s killing has to be seen in a broader, strategic context. While a lot of focus in the debate on drone strikes has been on the legal side, a very important question has largely gone unattended. Drones, as a weapon system, are highly effective but tactical. Tactical moves must add up to the strategic mosaic. If they don’t, battles can be won and the war lost.
Finally, a word on the nature of the debate in Pakistan: those who are happy over Mehsud’s death need to distance themselves from personalizing the issue, and analyze it in the strategic context. Equally, those who are lamenting his killing as if Mehsud was Mother Teresa’s brother should pour some realism over their simplistic approaches to talking to the Taliban and what and how much can be gained by signaling weakness to a terrorist franchise. Strategy is a function of dispassionate analysis, not partisan positions.
Haider is a senior journalist who has held various editorial positions. His areas of interest include defense, security, foreign policy, statecraft, political theory, and literature. You can follow him on Twitter for updates. From our Nov. 15, 2013, issue.