It’s easy to dismiss the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, via drone attack as simply more of the same, but in fact it’s a complicated story.
There’s a great deal of spy-vs.-spy in this event, since it emerged last week that (1) Pakistan was seeking to make a deal with the Pakistani Taliban aimed at winding down the conflict, and (2) Afghanistan was trying to make a secret pact with the Pakistani Taliban designed to give Pakistan a taste of its own medicine, since Kabul blames Islamabad for supporting, arming and sustaining the Afghan Taliban against it.
In the midst of this dance, which undoubtedly contains quite a few moves behind the curtain that we can’t see, and may never know about, the United States makes a couple of moves of its own. First, a Special Forces raid hits a convoy carrying a top leader of the Pakistani Taliban traveling through eastern Afghanistan on his way to Kabul to meet with President Karzai and/or his top security and intelligence officials. And second, a drone zaps Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in his redoubt inside Pakistan.
What’s going on, exactly? I haven’t the foggiest. But we can make some guesses. First, let’s review events.
The first event in this odd chain of events was reported by The Washington Post on October 10:
The United States recently seized a senior Pakistani Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan, snatching him from the custody of Afghan intelligence operatives who had spent months trying to recruit him as an interlocutor for peace talks, Afghan government officials charged Thursday.
At first, it appeared as if it were just one more American raid designed to suppress both the Afghan and Pakistani branches of the Taliban. But then, weirder reports surfaced that the Afghan government’s intelligence service was trying to recruit Latif Mehsud—not related to Hakimullah Mehsud, his boss—as a spy and double agent who’d work for Afghanistan inside Pakistan. The New York Times reported that Afghanistan’s spies were engaged in “a bungled attempt by the Afghan government to cultivate a shadowy alliance with Islamist militants.” It added:
The disrupted plan involved Afghan intelligence trying to work with the Pakistan Taliban, allies of Al Qaeda, in order to find a trump card in a baroque regional power game.
And it wasn’t really part of any “peace talks.” As the Times went on:
Publicly, the Afghan government has described Mr. Mehsud as an insurgent peace emissary. But according to Afghan officials, the ultimate plan was to take revenge on the Pakistani military.
Just as all this was taking place, Hakimullah Mehsud—who was blown to pieces by the US drone strike on November 1—said that he was interested in peace talks with Pakistan. Was Hakimullah aware that one of his top deputies was seeking to strike a secret deal with Afghanistan? Presumably so, since the only value for an Afghanistan project to use the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistan would be if its entire leadership, or most of it, was willing to go along. In any case, Hakimullah told the BBC on October 9: