Did the US botch a Pakistan peace overture with the killing of the head of the local Taliban?
The Nov. 1 drone attack by the US that killed the leader of the Pakistani
Talibanhe Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s
leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a Nov.1 drone attack has paralyzed prospects for
a ‘peaceful solution’ to Pakistan’s continuing terrorism and violence and has
to be regarded as a major blunder stemming from lack of communication and
distrust between the two countries.
Worse, the killing of Mehsud, who had
expressed at least some inclination to start a dialogue with the Pakistan
government for normalization, has allowed for his replacement by Mullah
Fazllulah, who has vowed never to negotiate with Pakistan. He is the hardliner
who ordered the attempt to kill the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, turning her
into a world figure after she survived being shot in the head.
To the utter dismay of the government
in Islamabad, the US once again has played its part in bringing the whole
process of dialogue, however fragile it was, to a dead end. Not only does it
reflect lack of cooperation and coordination between Pakistan and the US
authorities, but also the markedly different visions and priorities they have
of the region’s future.
The particular timing of the attack
has further added to the already brewing lava of intense suspicions in Pakistan
over US intentions although the killing was and is still being followed by
serious attempts on the part of Pakistani authorities to prevent the breakdown
of the dialogue.
The killing has also led many to the
conclusion that the US is not interested in helping to establish peace in
Pakistan, at least until Pakistan helps the US to achieve its war objectives in
The question of the Pakistani Taliban
has thus become a very serious dilemma for the Pakistani authorities, the one
which demands serious political and strategic maneuvering both at the national
and international levels.
One thing is becoming increasingly
clear in Pakistan with every passing day – that the incumbent government is
serious in a reaching a compromise with the Pakistani Taliban, perhaps because
the ruling business-oriented party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has rightly realized
the crucial importance of establishing peace as a prerequisite for making
Pakistan an attractive place for foreign direct investment. The first thing the
government had to do was to dissociate itself from this particular attack in
order to maintain its credibility vis-à-vis the Pakistani Taliban, leading the
interior minister to declare the attack an “ambush of peace talks.”
On the other hand, the provincial
government of Khyber Pakhutnkwa Province, the most troubled and terrorist-hit
province of Pakistan, also declared its intention to stop the flow of NATO/ISAF
supplies through areas under its jurisdiction.
The disagreement between the troubled
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial government, formerly known as the of Pakistan
Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Pakistan Movement for Justice, and the central
government of the Pakistan Muslim League over the issue of NATO supplies
against the backdrop of US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 has further
exacerbated the political environment in Pakistan, reinforcing the fact that
terrorism in Pakistan is inevitably linked with the Afghan conflict.
While the wrapping up of the 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 the US
forces. Most recent one was a trilateral meeting hosted by David Cameron, the
UK prime minister, and participated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and
President Karzai. After this meeting, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced in
London that the dialogue process with the Pakistani Taliban had begun.
Significantly, Sharif’s statement
came in response to Mehsud’s interview with the BBC in October, in which he
declared his intentions to start serious negotiations with the Pakistani
government. It is also significant to note that Islamabad, prior to Oct. 9, the
date of the BBC interview, had not formally announced the initiation of talks
or establishment of contact with the Pakistani Taliban. Not only did he invite
the government to engage in dialogue, but also made it clear that for the
ceasefire to be credible, “it is important that drone attacks are stopped.”
The Pakistani Taliban had placed some
hope on the negotiation process, especially in light of the prime minister’s
assurances to terminate air strikes on FATA territory after his October visit
to the US. However, why did the US kill Mehsud right after the PM’s
announcement of the initiation of talks? Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister
of Pakistan said in a press conference after the attack that the strike came
just hours before a delegation was supposed to travel and initiate talks with
the Pakistani Taliban.
The minister added that during
bilateral interactions with the US, including with Secretary of State John
Kerry, Pakistan had urged that drone strikes to be halted completely,
especially during the peace talks. Thus it is difficult to believe the often
repeated rhetoric that both the US and Pakistan are “closely cooperating” in
curbing the menace of terrorism in the region.
Mehsud was one of the US’s most
wanted terrorists, with a reward on his head of US$5 million. The Pentagon
suspected him of arranging the attack on a NATO base in Afghanistan, of a
botched car bombing in New York’s Times Square, and of terrorist attacks
against Americans in Pakistan. Nonetheless, critics say the US is seeking to
keep Pakistan in line with the policy objectives of the US, which is to ensure
the orderly departure from Afghanistan, and a peace with the Pakistani Taliban
would have got in the way of that.
Such views are not unfounded. For
example, the killing of Wali-ur Rehman, the second in command to the Pakistani
Taliban also came against the backdrop of a possible initiation of negotiations
between the government and the Taliban. He too was killed in a drone attack by
the US, on May 29, when the governments at the center and in provinces had just
been formed after elections on May 11, 2013.
During elections, all parties in
general emphasized the need for engaging with the Taliban in dialogue and find
a peaceful solution. Rehman’s killing within weeks after elections had the
effect of postponing the talks until Sharif’s statement of Oct. 31 in the UK.
The killing of Rehman and now Mehsud
is most likely to have a similar effect, or even worse since the new Taliban
leader, Mullah Fazllulah, happens to be a staunch enemy of the State of
Pakistan. He is the man who established his control in the Swat Valley, among
other things banning the attendance of girls in school. Malala Yousafzai was
shot in the head and neck on Oct. 9, 2012 on his orders. She survived and has
become a symbol of resistance to fundamentalism.
Mullah Fazllulah and his troops were
eventually pushed out and forced to leave military operations in the region in
2009. Announcement of his appointment was immediately followed by an official
statement by the Pakistani Taliban declaring that there would be no
negotiations with the government of Pakistan since Mullah Fazllulah “is already
against negotiations with Pakistan.”
The mess created after the attack has
pushed the government of Pakistan to its limits. Its consequences can be very
grave. One thing must be clear that one cannot hope to find solutions to such
complicated problems as terrorism and insurgency merely by removing heads of
such organizations and networks. And, considering the loose structure, vague
ideology and motivation of the Pakistani Taliban, this strategy may not work.
Such organizations are never short on leadership. Hence the killing of Hakeem
may not affect the Taliban’s continuity in carrying out attacks. Therefore, the
need is to take pragmatic steps to review counter-terrorism strategy in the
light of Pakistan’s socio-political realities and review aspects of its
relations with the US.
There is arguably no other way of
dealing with terrorism than through dialogue. Pakistani authorities seem to
have realized this, and their intention to go ahead with the dialogue process
was reinforced in a statement by the foreign office which said that, “the
government, however, is determined to continue with efforts to engage with the
Pakistani to bring an end to the ongoing violence and make them a part of
mainstream politics within the parameters of our constitution.”
The statement is very meaningful, not
because of its content, but because of the agency through which it has been
given i.e., the foreign office., giving the impression of having been
specifically directed against the US’ calling the dialogue process a matter
“internal” to Pakistan, and celebrating Hakeem’s death a victory of the US in
the war against terrorism.
The dilemma for Pakistan is wide and
open. Where it has to deal with the Pakistani Taliban, it has to handle the US
as well. Lack of coordination between the US and Pakistan is becoming a major
issue and a problem to be seriously reckoned with. However, how and the extent
to which it would affect the approaching end-game in Afghanistan and
Pakistan-US bilateral relations in that context is another question. But it is
more than apparent that the damage to the Pakistan government’s efforts to
establish peace with the Taliban has been done. ‘Asia Sentinel’