In the scenario emanating out of Hakimullah Mehsud’s killing, first test for the government of Pakistan was to credibly establish its non-connivance in the drone attack that killed HUM. New government’s persistent anti-drone stance came handy, and provided it a strong and credible anchorage.  Government stood the test fairly well. It took a considered position on this particular drone attack, articulated through Interior Ministers press conference on Saturday. Rejecting the notion that the government of Pakistan was involved in this strike, he said that the official view on the strike was that it was an “ambush on peace talks” with the Taliban. In a much harsher stance, provincial government of KPK has indicated its intent to stop flow of IASF/NATO supplies through its area of jurisdiction.
Wrapping up of Afghan conflict is on fast track. A number of bilateral and multilateral events are in process with a single objective: to provide a face saving exit to America. Most recent one was a trilateral meeting hosted by the Prime Minister of UK, and participated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Karzai. After this meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had announced in London that the dialogue process with the Taliban had begun.
Pulling out of a combat zone has never been easy for Americans. Speed-ambiguity-deceit combine has been the traditional name of the game; double cross and triple cross are the usual tools. By the time victim begins to cope-up with the effects of the previous move, the things have already moved past and are too far away to keep such damage control moves over the previous episode relevant. Present day strength of American strategy are superb human intelligence in the combat zone, and over paid sleeping cells in the victim lands. Guiding chip in Hakimullah’s vehicle was, presumably, planted by someone bought out from within the TTP; and supporters of American attack immediately sprang into action on all popular electronic media channels, their dictum and chorus like utterances indicated that they had been hard wired by a common disc jockey.
Hussian Haqqani in his latest book “Magnificent Delusions” has been maintaining a view that the American drone attacks on Pakistani soil were a part of overall understanding between the two governments.
Pakistan has termed the drone strike that killed HUM “an attack on regional peace by America,” and took a major decision to review the overall perspective of Pak-US bilateral ties. “Government of Pakistan does not see this strike as a strike on an individual, but on the peace process.” It also questioned the timing of the strike, asking why did the US have to target Mehsud on the eve of talks when there had been numerous opportunities to target him in the past? “I want to give the message that those who have scuttled the peace process should have tolerance, we must all play our part in peace process”, the interior minister said. He revealed that the strike came just hours before a delegation was supposed to travel and initiate talks with the Taliban. Interior minister further said that during bilateral interactions with the US, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Pakistan had urged for drone strikes to be halted completely, especially during the peace talks.
Pakistan has taken a decision to review all aspects of Pak-US relations; cabinet would meet soon to form a future course of action. Pakistan would formally take-up the matter of drones at the UNSC and other international forums, an urgent meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National Security is on the cards. First manifestation of these decisions was that the US ambassador was summoned to the foreign office and was served a demarche’. Secondly, Pakistani foreign office, its UN mission and ambassadors to P-5 countries have been directed to approach the permanent members of the UNSC to take them into confidence over the future course of action. “In accordance with our publicly stated, consistent policy, Pakistan has condemned drone strikes whenever they have taken place, including the two recent drone attacks that took place on Thursday and Friday…The government, however, is determined to continue with efforts to engage with the TTP, to bring an end to the ongoing violence and make them a part of mainstream politics within the parameters of our constitution,” the foreign office statement said.
Timing rather than their effects made the recent event sensational. Earlier on also, a number of leading figures of TPP have been eliminated through drone attacks, these include: Nek Muhammad, Baitullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain, Ilyas Kashmiri, Maulvi Nazir, Waliur Rehman Mehsud etc. Most of these commanders were killed when they showed inclination to enter into negotiations with Pakistan. HUM also met a similar fate. In fact, every time Pakistan is close to find out a negotiated settlement of the militancy issue, and attempts to tame the disgruntled Taliban through parleys, the process is sabotaged by the drone strikes.
Decapitation or the strategy of killing top commanders of terrorist groups is quite important from the counter-terrorism standpoint. But considering the loose structure, vague ideology and motivation of the TTP, this strategy may not work. Organizations like the TTP are never short on leadership; hence killing of HUM may not affect the TTP’s continuity in carrying out attacks. A close aide of HUM Khan Said alias Sajnaa is likely to takeover as the Ameer (Chief) of TTP. There could be a violent backlash in the form of reprisal attacks in various parts of the country. If the group stages large-scale attacks, it would be an indicator of its strength and viability. Failure to do so would indicate a decline leading to its gradual fizzling out.
In the short term, the prospect of talks would seem to have diminished. But as time passes by, factionalism may increase inside the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban, led by Asmatullah Muawiyah, could gain further strength. Muawiyah had welcomed the offer of peace talks by the government without Hakimullah’s prior consent, prompting the latter to expel him from TTP ranks; later HUM reconciled. Intelligence estimates indicate that TTP factions in favour of talks outnumber those opposed to parleys. Hakimullah’s elimination may further factionalise TTP, most of which ultimately may agree to hold talks. Hakimullah’s death may be a setback for peace in the immediate future. However, in the long run, it may be an opportunity in the form of operational degradation of the TTP.
Despite government’s rhetoric, the incident is not likely to cause any significant degradation in Pak-US relations. Probably there would be nothing beyond usual noises because there are not many rungs below the present status of Pak-US bilateral relations, at least at the public level. America would also not take any radical pressuring measures like cut in the flow of economic aid, because this may result in entrapping of NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan far beyond 2014. While at the same time, the US may not oblige Pakistan by ending drone strikes, at least for the time being. In all probability drone strikes and the dialogue would move in tandem, one step forward and two backwards!
The writer is a freelance columnist.