After drone kills Taliban deputy, what will new Pakistan government do?

With the first drone strike in Pakistan after its landmark elections, all eyes are on new leader Nawaz Sharif, who has spoken strongly against drones.

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Nawaz Sharif addresses party workers in Lahore, Pakistan, May 20. A suspected US drone strike is the first since Pakistan's general election on May 11, in which Sharif’s party won, setting him up to become the prime minister for the third time next week when the new parliament session begins.

A drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal region along the border with Afghanistan has killed the deputy commander of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Waliur Rehman, according to military sources operating in the region.

The suspected US drone strike is the first since Pakistan’s general election on May 11, in which Nawaz Sharif’s party won, setting him up to become the prime minister for the third time next week when the new parliament session begins.

Mr. Sharif’s party policy has been highly critical of drone attacks. Sharif has also stated on numerous occasions that Pakistan needs to review its alliance with the Western powers, especially the United States, in regard to the war on terror. However, analysts say that the timing of the drone attack and the choice of target for the drone makes it unclear Mr. Sharif will respond.

By going after Mr. Rehman, who was a significant threat to the Pakistani state, the US is trying to build an impression that it is helping the Pakistani government to fight militancy, says Rahimullah Yousafzai, editor of The News International, an English daily based in Peshawar.

“They are going to tell the Pakistani government that, ‘look, we are helping you by killing your enemy, so let us continue with these strikes’,” he says.

Mr. Yousafzai adds, “But this is also a message for the new government from the United States that we mean business – and so we will go for these strikes whenever we have actionable intelligence about high value targets like Waliur Rehman.”

A middle path?

Sharif has been careful not to explicitly say anything about taking any extreme measures, says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan security expert. “So he will be flexible about the drone attacks issue once he takes office,” says Ms. Siddiqa. “He will definitely find a middle path by pacifying the Americans and the Pakistani public because most of the statements up until now were more to do with populism than pragmatism.”

According to locals from North Waziristan, who wish to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, Rehman was tipped to be the head of the TTP following a drone strike in 2009 that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the man behind the group’s formation. But, due to internal rifts, Rehman did not get the post. The Pakistani Taliban have previously denied such reports.

Rehman was serving as the chief of the South Waziristan faction of the TTP, where the terrorist group originates from, but fled to North Waziristan after the military launched an operation in South Waziristan in 2009.

North Waziristan, where the drone strike occurred early Wednesday, is known to be a haven for Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, against which the Pakistani military has not taken any action. It is widely perceived that they operate in the area with an understanding with the military that they will only attack targets across the border in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban, a local branch of the Taliban, has unleashed a series of attacks on Pakistani military and civilians killing thousands in the past few years and the government has failed to curb their terrorist activities despite repeated military operations in the tribal area and settled parts of Pakistan where they have had a stronghold.

Sharif had stated in an address to his party workers on May 20, that he hopes to initiate a peace dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, and according to his senior party leadership, a roadmap for the talks is on top of his agenda when Sharif formally takes charge next week, but the latest drone attack may complicate issues for him, says Yousafzai.

“The peace talks may be jeopardized because of this drone strike, because it will affect the goodwill Sharif enjoys with the Pakistani Taliban,” he says, referring to the fact that the TTP had offered conditional peace talks to the previous government in February this year. The TTP named Sharif as one of the guarantors, though talks did not materialize.

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