The day after a drone strike eliminated Hakimullah Mehsud, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief and the country’s Public Enemy No. 1, Pakistan declared war on the United States.
At a fiery press conference on Nov. 2 in Islamabad, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the country’s interior minister, turned tribal. He held the U.S. responsible for sabotaging “peace” talks with the Taliban and suggested that relations with the superpower would be rethought. Khan said the cause of his bereavement was the death of the prospect of talks with the terrorists. Mehsud, he said, was killed a day before government emissaries were to meet with him. Describing himself as a “weak” and “flawed” man and broadly citing Islam to justify the talks despite continuing Taliban terror, Khan’s hot words against ally America were clearly meant to placate the Taliban, who may now be spoiling for major retaliatory attacks across the country.
To be fair, Khan is not alone in his dim assessment of the U.S., which at last rid Pakistan of a monster who had slaughtered thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel. (Mehsud’s predecessor was also done in by a drone.) Ahmed Rashid, author and Taliban expert, told the Voice of America news service that, “In a way, the Americans have had this habit of stopping any kind of dialogue between either the Pakistani Army or the Pakistani government with the Pakistani Taliban by using drones to knock out some important figure. And that is exactly what they have done this time.” Pakistan, Rashid says, must now brace itself: “There will be a wave of violence and a lot of casualties as the Taliban take revenge and they may decide now to carry out assassinations of prominent figures, and the real fear is that also it could spread.” (Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said on Nov. 3 that “time will tell whether we take revenge for [Mehsud’s] martyrdom or not.” He also called the Pakistani government and Army “slaves” of America, with whom peace could not be negotiated.)
Pakistan maintains its ambivalence toward the United States and its controversial drone program, with baffling, tragicomic results. This lack of clarity is both galling and definitively detrimental to any peace process or endgame that Islamabad aspires for.
Take for instance the dispute over casualty figures. In apparent support of drones, the Ministry of Defense, which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif oversees as defense minister, told the Senate on Oct. 30 that 317 drone strikes in the federally-administered tribal areas had killed only 67 civilians, and 2,160 militants, since 2008—a number far below guesstimates by rights groups. The ministry said that no civilians had been killed by drones on Sharif’s watch. The following day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is also overseen by Sharif as foreign minister, publicly disputed these figures. Drones, it said, had killed at least 400 civilians and 200 “noncombatants.”
Sharif’s priority to salvage the economy can profit from drone strikes.
During his recent four-day visit to Washington, Sharif spoke against drones at the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank. (He had also raised the subject at the U.N. General Assembly in September.) Sharif took up the subject with President Barack Obama at the White House on Oct. 23, but their official joint statement does not include the D word. Still, Sharif’s activism against drones resonated well with most quarters at home.
Sharif had campaigned in the 2013 elections with two opposed slogans: opening up to India and peace with the Taliban. He dropped the India part earlier by raising the issue of Kashmir at the U.N., but embraced the Taliban part by talking about America’s drone attacks in unison with the rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Recently-slain Mehsud’s view of the prime minister’s U.S. visit was cynical: “Sharif went to America to get aid restored, not to get drones stopped. We never believed otherwise before nor do we believe otherwise now.” Mehsud’s declared preconditions for talks with Islamabad included ending drone strikes and rethinking AmPak relations.
On the day of Sharif’s meeting with Obama, The Washington Post ran a story confirming that drone strikes in Pakistan had been agreed upon between the CIA and Pakistan’s Army—at least up to 2011. It provided some details about the latter actually directing targeting in some cases. (The Army issued a ritual denial following the story’s publication.)
Hakimullah Mehsud had also held that the Army was in on the strikes, this was his justification for martyring its soldiers. The bitter truth is that if drones disappear, the Taliban win the tribal areas uncontested. Clearly, the Army wanted Mehsud targeted, just as it did his predecessor. In fact, as president, Pervez Musharraf had complained in private that the Americans had not taken out Baitullah Mehsud—who was responsible in 2007 for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a twice-elected former prime minister, and the barely-resisted kidnapping of over 200 soldiers in South Waziristan—despite Pakistan providing the Americans with his coordinates. To be clear, while the Army wanted both Mehsuds dead, it does not view all Al Qaeda-affiliated groups organized in North Waziristan similarly.
Several aspects of the Pakistani consensus against drones can only be fathomed through psychoanalysis. The media consensus in Pakistan is frank: end drone strikes, because the Taliban demand it. Populism against drones, fostered by the media’s brainwash, is outwardly embraced by the soon-to-be-retired Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who rightly fears dissent among his ranks. The rabidly followed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also abides by the same anti-drones commitment. Its top stalwart in Peshawar, Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, says he would have shot down drones had he been ruling in Islamabad. He’s also threatened to halt passage of NATO supplies through his province, which is virtually ruled by the Taliban—who have killed at least three PTI officials since May.
Pakistani politicians and generals often accuse nameless foreign enemies of carrying out the bombings that kill innocents because these forces do not wish for Pakistan to achieve peace. Khan, the interior minister, also restated at his presser that “foreign intelligence agencies” are involved in domestic terrorism. While he offered no evidence to support this, the tired euphemisms are an obvious reference to archenemy India and frenemy America. This view is accurately encapsulated by Shahid Aziz, a retired general, in his memoir, How Long This Silence: a Soldier’s Story of Passion and Absorption: “The bombs that kill innocent Pakistanis in bazaars and mosques are planted by friends of America, and this terrorism is done to persuade Pakistan to embrace America more closely, allow the government to pursue pro-America policies and to alienate Pakistan from the mujahideen. But this trend of support to the killers of Muslims is open rebellion against Allah.” (Aziz recently enlisted a cleric to declare both drones and U.S. aid un-Islamic.)
Sharif didn’t go to Washington to stop drones. He went seeking a shot in the arm for the Pakistani economy, conveying the worn trade-not-aid mantra despite the fact that his two advisers on foreign policy knew America has its own financial priorities and that Pakistan is no leafy haven for investment. But Sharif will only discover how much Hakimullah Mehsud and his cohorts have devalued Pakistani assets through bomb blasts and kidnappings when he gets down to privatizing the country’s state-owned enterprises.
Judged by the yardstick of low expectations, Sharif scored diplomatically at least: his visit seemingly restored a relationship that had been derailed by Kayani; it reopened the channels of communication blocked by two years of anti-Americanism at home exacerbated by a paranoia historically associated with isolated states. But the anti-American sentiment and paranoia are back with the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud.
For its part, Washington promised to continue assistance to Islamabad and released $1.6 billion ahead of Sharif’s visit. Washington highlighted its little known or little acknowledged generosity to Pakistan: rehabilitation of power plants that has added 1,000 megawatts to the grid helping 16 million Pakistanis; funding for dams and irrigation projects, including one in North Waziristan; support for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project; and endorsement of the Central Asia-South Asia electricity line. It also stated that U.S. assistance has built or rehabilitated 600 schools, provided 12,000 university scholarships, trained more than 10,000 teachers, and that USAID is working on helping 3.2 million Pakistani children learn to read. The bilateral “working group” on energy meets this month, and the next Strategic Dialogue and the third U.S.-Pakistan Economic Opportunities Conference both take place next year.
Sharif and Obama also expressed “satisfaction” over the passage of NATO supplies through Pakistan. Their joint statement says that “both sides emphasized the need to maintain and enhance” the infrastructure for these Ground Lines of Communication and that Sharif welcomed USAID’s agreement to repave 247 kilometers of the road between Kalat and Chaman which will link Afghanistan’s Kandahar to the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi.
If the Sharif government’s key concern is salvaging the economy, then this priority can profit from drone strikes such as the one that killed Mehsud. Drone strikes, unpopular as they are, are most certainly more cost-effective than large-scale military operations and the attendant billions required to be spent on the internally-displaced population.
Pakistan will only hurt itself by overplaying its leverage as a transit state.
Pakistan, of course, cannot take on the U.S., as the interior minister has suggested, while both its borders are hot. Since January, clashes along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir into Pakistan- and India-administered parts have stunted efforts to normalize Pakistan-India relations. Omar Abdullah, chief minister of India-administered Kashmir, has expressed unhappiness with Sharif’s leadership. “Either Sharif is hand in glove in [the Line of Control] violations or he has no control over his Army,” he said. Abdullah also pointedly praised Sharif’s bête noire, “Gen. Musharraf had given people of [the] border areas the biggest gift of all—peace of mind. The 2003 Ceasefire held for 10 years.” But the Kashmir clashes may well be part of Sharif’s strategy. If he normalizes with New Delhi before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the India-centric strategy leveraged with terrorists in the tribal areas would be undermined on the western border.
This is a strategy bound to backfire. If Sharif is not able to normalize with India and gets embroiled once again in Afghanistan with hawks on India pointing the way and nonstate actors wagging the bankrupt state’s dog, it will be Game Over for Pakistan. The talk-with-the-Taliban policy suffers from a major flaw: the terrorists want change not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. Tragically, despite his initial promise, Sharif’s government is cleaving now to the tried-and-failed national-security narrative focusing on India as the enemy. His minister for water and power, Khawaja Asif, recently accused India of unleashing a “water war” on Pakistan and termed the World Bank-brokered Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 as unfair. As usual, Asif showed little knowledge of what he spoke and provided no evidence to support his allegations.
Sharif’s drones-heavy speech at USIP was reported in the Urdu press as a kind of medieval dare to America: “Honor us and we will honor you; we want a relationship of equals.” Given how unequal states like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea reap untold advantages from greater powers, this demand for equality is mindboggling. Of course, Pakistan itself has benefited from its unequal relationships with both the United States and China. Pakistan cannot do without American dole, no matter what “honor” compels talking heads to claim otherwise. This suicidal strut can be attributed to the mistaken belief that America will crawl before Pakistan because it needs to get out of Afghanistan desperately.
Pakistan will only hurt itself by overplaying its leverage as a transit state. It is estimated that the U.S. needs to ship out some 100,000 containers and about 50,000 vehicles from Afghanistan by the end of next year. Today, this shipping tag is estimated at close to $6 billion. If America is good to Pakistan, its containers will be allowed to pass through “safely”—whatever that means in Pakistani lexicon—but if it is mean, alternate exit routes will bump up the cost to $37 billion. But this figure is a pittance compared to the $100-billion-plus America will save annually from leaving Afghanistan. In extremis, the U.S. can also decide to just scrap its equipment.
Can Sharif guarantee the safe passage of NATO traffic through Pakistan if talks with the Taliban don’t take off? Evidently, Islamabad’s placation of the Taliban through its denunciation of drones is motivated by three reasons: fear of retribution by the terrorists; fear of rejection by the national consensus that is roundly hostile to the U.S. and cravenly abject before the Taliban; and money matters that are so vital to staunching the economy.
The Taliban are not the only source of friction between Pakistan and the U.S. There’s also Jamat-ud-Dawah’s Hafiz Saeed, who, living as he does in Pakistan proper, can’t be eliminated by drones. In Washington, the Americans gifted Sharif a dossier of proofs against Saeed, who has $10 million of U.S. government head-money riding on him. The dossier relates to Saeed’s alleged involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a source of abiding tension between Pakistan and India. When news of this dossier broke in Pakistan, Saeed appeared on TV demanding that the U.S. focus on stopping drone strikes instead of “defaming” him.
Saeed has walked from the courts an innocent man, cleared of multiple charges of terrorism. The man who routinely flings the threat of war at India is said to have a private army of over 200,000 warriors on call. Saeed is too strong to be even asked to tone down his brazenly uncivilized rhetoric. Sartaj Aziz, who advises Sharif on foreign affairs and national security, responded to the American case-making against Saeed by stating that Pakistan will not move against him because of insufficient proof. However, Pakistan has accepted that Lashkar-e-Taiba (which Saeed cofounded) was involved in the Mumbai attacks and is trying some of its members, including its leader Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi—who is reportedly being treated well in a Rawalpindi prison and used his cellphone to tell friends about conjugal visits from his new wife. The same month that Sharif visited Washington, India and the U.S. signed an agreement to target Lashkar-e-Taiba’s financial network abroad.
Apart from a hint of cooperation on Pakistan’s talks with the Taliban, Obama had given Sharif no assurances on drones. That hint was spun by Islamabad to mean a firm pledge by Washington to scale down and finally end all strikes. Hakimullah Mehsud immediately saw through the ruse. And then, proving his point, the sky fell on him.
From our Nov. 15, 2013, issue.