Terrorist Leader’s Death Sours American-Pakistani Relations

The killing of a Taliban leader upsets officials in Islamabad who were exploring peace talks with the militant group.

View near Landi Kotal on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, August 2, 2006
View near Landi Kotal on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, August 2, 2006 (Aamer Javed)

By all indications, Hakimullah Mehsud was a terrorist. Despite his relative inexperience as a youthful, if determined, low level fighter, the Pakistani impressed his superiors so much that in just a few short years, he became the head of a major branch of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the country’s largest and most feared terrorist group. After a American drone strike killed its top commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in the summer of 2009, the Pakistani Taliban’s leader met and selected the younger Mehsud to guide the group through a very challenging time in its history.

Through the use of suicide bombers, large-scale car bombings and coordinated attacks against Pakistan’s army and security forces, Mehsud’s status soon rose to an elite level within the jihadist ranks. While Pakistanis were his primary victims, he quickly gained the attention of the United States as well when a young Jordanian who was thought to be a promising intelligence asset for the CIA blew himself up inside of an agency base in eastern Afghanistan. That strike killed seven intelligence agents and was the worst attack leveled against the intelligence agency since the 1983 bombing of the United States’ marine barracks in Beirut.

So after four years of searching, a feeling of relief swept over the American counterterrorism community when a drone finally caught up to the Taliban leader on Friday and hit the vehicle he was riding in.

For the tens of thousands of Pakistanis whose families have been victimized by the Taliban’s terrorism, Mehsud’s death is at least a small measure of justice..

The official reaction from the Pakistani government, however, was the very opposite of celebration. Officials were frustrated, not so much because Mehsud’s death dismayed them, rather because the government’s planned peace talks with the Taliban are now in jeopardy.

Arriving at a deal with the militants has bought some quiet in the past, particularly in Pakistan’s western tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. But after a few months, the agreements typically collapsed, largely due to the Taliban’s unwillingness to lay down their arms permanently and accept the central government’s authority.

There seemed to be little chance of reaching a longer term accord then. Yet there also seemed to be a desire on both sides recently to give diplomacy another try. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who assumed office in June, premised much of his election campaign on the need to end terrorism and violence through dialogue rather than military operations. And a few weeks before his death this weekend, Hakimullah Mehsud acknowledged that he was interested in probing the idea of talking with the government. During a rare television interview with the BBC, the terrorist leader suggested he might welcome a government delegation to the tribal regions to probe whether a peace process was possible.

Mehsud’s killing has likely thwarted any possibility of a peace process starting before it could properly get underway. According to various news reports, the drone strike even occurred just a day before Sharif’s administration was to send a preliminary delegation to the tribal areas.

What impact Mehsud’s death has on American-Pakistan relations in general will depend in large part on how quickly the two countries can settle the latest round of disagreement behind closed doors. For the time being, Pakistani officials are indignant, so much so that the American ambassador was recalled to Islamabad, guidance was given to Pakistani diplomats to register a compliant with the United Nations Security Council and a meeting was set for Pakistan’s ministers, security officials and senior advisors to determine whether ties with the United States should be scaled back.

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