Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud’s death in a U.S. drone strike in the tribal belt adjoining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on Friday has, once again, thrown into turmoil one of America’s most volatile security relationships.
The foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest, and the prime minister’s office confirmed earlier statements by the foreign and interior ministers that the relationship with the U.S. will now be reviewed.
Opposition leader Imran Khan, whose party governs the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, announced plans to cut key supply lines to NATO forces in Afghanistan. (After the accidental killing in a U.S. airstrike of 24 Pakistani soldiers in late 2011, Islamabad shut off the crucial supply lines for seven months, eventually lifting the blockade after the U.S. in a statement expressed “deepest regrets,” and pledged to work “to prevent this from ever happening again.”)
The TTP has carried out hundreds of suicide attacks, killing thousands of people, since 2007. Pakistani and U.S. officials frequently observe that the country has probably suffered more from terrorism than any other country in recent years.
Just two months ago TTP claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack ever against the country’s Christian minority – the deaths at least 80 people in a church suicide bombing in Peshawar.
Yet Sharif, with support from other political parties, had decided to push ahead with negotiations with the group, despite numerous similar previous attempts over the past seven years that all ended in failure and worsened security, both in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.
The group’s deadly campaign has continued in recent months, but at no stage did the government accuse it of derailing the initiative and call it off.
The angry reaction to Mehsud’s death is not only over the way it was carried out – missile attacks by unmanned drones remain highly sensitive – but because it came on the eve of the opening of the “peace talks.”
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar characterized the killing as “the murder of peace” and Imran Khan called it a “plot to derail the peace process.” From other politicians and media commentators, too, the verdict has been that the U.S. has sabotaged that effort.
The TTP, which has appointed an interim leader and is threatening revenge attacks for Mehsud’s death, says it is reconsidering its stance on talks.
Mehsud, the subject of a $5 million U.S. reward, is the third top-tier TTP figure to be killed in drone strikes since 2009. The man he succeeded as leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in August 2009 and his second-in-command, Wali Ur Rehman, was killed last May. Back in 2004, the leader of a TTP precursor, Waziri warlord Nek Mohammad, was believed to be the first casualty of the covert drone war in Pakistan.
In an editorial, Peshawar’s Frontier Post reiterated its view that the TTP will only end violence if decisively defeated on the battlefield, but still accused the U.S. of “naked interference” in Pakistan’s internal affairs by killing a top terrorist who had expressed a willingness to talk.
By contrast The Nation, a conservative Lahore daily, said in an editorial one would think from the government’s reaction “that a peace-loving, patriotic Pakistani has been killed, and not a terrorist responsible for the murder of government officials, army personnel and thousands of innocent civilians.”
“Since the federal government’s offer of peace talks, did the militants, for a single day, halt their bloody campaign against the country? Did they lay down their weapons to ‘give peace a chance’?” it asked.
The editorial said a tough military offensive against the TTP was now needed more urgently than ever.
“If we continue to appease, and pander, and obfuscate – as Imran Khan and Chaudhry Nisar are clearly in favor of doing – we will be missing a golden opportunity to take decisive action against a group that has killed thousands, and will kill more.”
Under former presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Pervez Musharraf, past administrations attempted to negotiate an end to the violent campaign by the TTP and its precursors since 2006, offering concessions including troop pullbacks, pardons for wanted terrorists, and permission for the militants to impose shari’a in their areas.
U.S. and NATO military officials warned of the impact the deals were having on security in Afghanistan. Eventually every one of them fell through but Sharif wants to try again. The State Department last week called the plans an “internal matter for Pakistan.”
The TTP has close ties to both al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, and has carried out numerous attacks against U.S. interests in the region. It also claimed responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a bomb in New York City’s Times Square in May 2010, invoking a jihad against the West.
Recalling Mehsud’s role in bringing together various militant groups into the TTP, the group’s violent activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and his stated desire to carry out attacks in the U.S., House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he feels “a little better for our troops today than I did before this event happened.”