US killing of Taliban's Hakimullah Mehsud sparks Pakistan outrage

A US drone strike has been blamed for the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and the Pakistani government is publicly furious. Privately, it might be something else.

Ishtiaq Mehsud/AP/File
Former Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, (l.) with his comrade Waliur Rehman, in Sararogha of Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border in October 2009. Intelligence officials said Friday Mehsud was one of three people killed in a US drone strike.

The reported death of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike on Friday has infuriated the Pakistani government, which claims Mehsud’s death will upend plans to hold peace talks with the militant group.

"The US has ruined the road to peace," complained Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in an evening address in which he also said that Pakistan will review relations with the US and make complaints over the American attack to the UN Security Council. "This is not just the killing of one person. It's the death of all peace efforts."

When the Pakistani Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in 2009 Pakistan’s influential Dawn newspaper headlined the story as "Good riddance, killed Baitullah." But much has changed in the years since.

The Pakistani Taliban's insurgency in the country's northwest has claimed tens of thousands of lives and Pakistan's military has battled the group in places like North Waziristan and the Swat Valley for years. But a nationalist backlash against the US involvement in killing Taliban figures has been building and the government has said it wants to come to an accord with the movement.

The rhetoric emanating from Islamabad in the wake of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death shows how much has changed. Rather than trumpeting the death of a man whose movement has waged a brutal campaign against the government (including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), complaints instead are made that the US has derailed peace talks with the TTP.

From some corners, there are calls for retaliation. Hardline politician Imran Khan has called for Pakistan to shut NATO supply routes in Pakistan as punishment for the killing of Mehsud. The government last shut down NATO supply routes for the Afghan war in November 2011, after a NATO airstrike on a Pakistani check post killed 24 soldiers. Transit routes remained closed for seven months and were reopened after the Obama administration apologized for the deaths.

A peace agreement with the group has been endorsed by a number of political parties and strongly backed by politicians like Mr. Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’s Fazlur Rehman.

Interior Minister Khan claimed on Friday that the government was set to send a delegation to North Waziristan to meet with the TTP, which has been held back. Imran Khan, whose party controls the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, told reporters that “It has now been proven that whenever Pakistan has attempted to open dialogue, drone strikes have sabotaged that.”

Khan claimed that there were "others" involved in carrying out recent bomb blasts in Pakistan.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said that “these drone strikes have a negative impact on the mutual desire of both countries to forge a cordial and cooperative relationship and to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

But there has been little clarity on the process of negotiating with the TTP. Earlier this week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that Pakistan had started peace talks, but there appears to be no actual work on the ground. It is also unclear what the terms for the talks are, which of the many militant groups under the TTP’s umbrella the government plans to talk to, and what it is prepared to compromise on.

Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc, a book about the Pakistani military's involvement in politics and business, doubts Mehsud's death means the end of talks. “There is this hype, this assumption that talks will collapse,” she says. “Why should they collapse? This hype is what will lead to talks collapsing, not the actual process. Most people do not understand the methodology of talks, that this strike could pressurize the TTP [because they have just lost their leader] and mellow their positions.”

Imtiaz Gul, the author of Pakistan: Before and After Osama, says that “for the time being, the assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud has dealt a blow to the peace talks that weren’t fated to succeed anyway, if we presume that the TTP has been acting as a proxy for somebody else.”

Gul said the recent arrest of senior TTP Latif Mehsud by US forces in Afghanistan “made it quite clear that the TTP was following a certain agenda directly in conflict with the efforts of Americans and Pakistanis to pave way for reconciliation in Afghanistan.” The New York Times reported this week that Mehsud was traveling for talks with the Afghan government when he was captured by US troops, and cited Afghan and US officials as saying the Karzai government was seeking an alliance with the Pakistani Taliban as a bargaining chip to use against Pakistan. 

Siddiqa says that the threats issued by Imran Khan to shut down NATO resupply probably won't go anywhere. An impassioned nationalist stance against US drone strikes fueled his rise to political prominence, so his complaints this time are nothing now. But "the political reality is that the military doesn’t seem to be backing this one. They are letting him use it but they are not letting him go anywhere with it.”

Gul agrees. “Imran Khan can’t act in isolation from what the Pakistani military and civilian leadership thinks,” he said.

What does the Pakistani military make of all this? Gul said it's possible that the military and parts of the government both supported the decision to kill Mehsud and might have even helped. “This is a very lethal blow to the TTP, four or five of their people have been killed. This probably wouldn’t have been possible without real time ground information.”

Interior Minister Khan denied that the Pakistani government was involved in the attack on Mehsud.

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