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.
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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:
“We believe in serious talks but the government has taken no steps to approach us. The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions.”
Indeed, Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban did begin yet another effort to strike an accord that would presumably end the violence against the government and give the Pakistani Taliban some freedom to operate in their strongholds. After the killing, the Pakistani interiot minister complained that the American drone strike was designed to disrupt the talks. Said the Times:
The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, described the American action as a calculated blow against the fledgling peace process.
Meanwhile, also in October, the United States resumed the supply of $1.5 billion in economic aid to Pakistan and a few days later Pakistan’s new leader, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, came to Washington for a tête-à-tête with President Obama. Though they agreed to disagree on the American campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan’s territory, and although the strikes (in public at least) are routinely condemned by Pakistan’s leaders, on October 31—after Prime Minister Sharif had returned home, having pocketed the $1.5 billion—the Pakistani government issued a report on civilian casualties in drone strikes that greatly minimized the number of civilians allegedly killed since 2008. The report said that only sixty-seven civilians have died in drone strikes during the five-year period, far fewer than the 400 reported killed according to a UN report. Was this report a gift to the United States by Sharif?
Nobody, of course, has precise knowledge of how many civilians, and how many Al Qaeda and Taliban officials and rank-and-filers, have actually been killed.
There’s no doubt that the Pakistani Taliban is an organization that has killed countless thousands of innocents, including—by all accounts—former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who died soon after returning to Pakistan after the fall of the Musharraf dictatorship. Whether or not Hakimullah Mehsud would have reached an accord with the government, which is somewhat unlikely—previous pacts have fallen apart or been abused by the Taliban—few in Pakistan would or should mourn his death. But the fact that he was killed by a drone, even though apparently no civilians died in the attack, is a major irritant in Pakistani society. And even though the government of Pakistan secretly endorses the raids, and even cooperates in them, they are so unpopular that no government in Islamabad can admit that fact.
Meanwhile, what did the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud accomplish? Leaving aside the question of whether or not it disrupted or destroyed peace talks, there are plenty of reports that the Pakistani Taliban is quickly working to anoint a new leader.
Such spy-vs.-spy shenanigans are unworthy, though typical, of the United States. The deadline for the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan in 2014 is fast approaching, and there’s precious little sign that Washington has geared up for a real peace process involving both Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with the Taliban and other oppositionists, along with interested parties such as India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Working through the United Nations, that ought to be the Obama administration’s priority for the next twelve months. Time’s a wastin’.
Check out Bob Dreyfuss's take on the potential of continued US involvement in Iraq.