This past month, the U.S. has embarked on a string of covert strikes, some successful and some not, in the war against terror. First there was the action-packed night of October 5, which concluded with the capture of militant Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli and the failed capture of a Somali Shabab leader. Then, just last Friday, CIA drones fired their missiles into a compound in North Waziristan, finally killing Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. At first glance, this was a much-needed victory for America’s controversial drone program – which, too often, does not hit what it’s aiming for. However, the strike’s complicated aftermath is now dampening American celebrations. Mehsud’s death – and the manner in which it occurred – have raised ire among Pakistan’s conservatives and put a swift end to Saturday’s scheduled peace negotiations between the Pakistani Taliban (officially known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), and representatives of the Pakistani government. This week’s assassination and its unintended consequences are now giving rise to difficult questions: When is a covert operation truly worth it, and is it possible to accurately predict its cost in advance?
Only a week and a half ago, it seemed that Pakistan and the U.S. were finally beginning to mend a relationship long fraught with tension. Pakistan’s recently elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, traveled to Washington on October 23 with the goal of convincing the Obama administration to halt its drone strikes. (Amnesty International has confirmed that these strikes have killed at least 19 civilians in the province of North Waziristan since January 2012.) During these meetings the Obama administration agreed to release more than $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan, in what the New York Times called a move “to symbolize a new beginning.” This money has been withheld since the US decision in 2011 to enter the country and kill Osama Bin Laden, a decision that prompted long-lasting indignation among the Pakistanis. Mr. Obama also promised to assist Pakistan as it rebuilds its economy, and called the election of Mr. Sharif – who campaigned on a platform of ending the drone strikes and seeking peace talks with the Taliban – a democratic success and “harbinger of change.” A Pakistan expert on the Council of Foreign Relations, Daniel Markey, responded to this meeting’s effects on the scheduled Pakistani/TTP peace talks with cautious optimism: “If part of our strategy for… the talks is not to disrupt it with the use of drones, then I could imagine we could seriously curtail our target list during which time the Pakistani government could pursue its talks.”
Just a little over a week later, and only one a day before the peace talks were scheduled to begin, American drones exploded Hakimullah Mehsud’s vehicle as it entered his compound, killing him and six others.
We will never know how these talks will have gone, or if they would have produced tangible results. However, a quick glance at Mehsud’s record makes it clear why he was prioritized for elimination. A man in his mid-30’s with a $5 million United States bounty on his head, he had led the TTP since 2009. Under his control, the group killed thousands of Pakistani civilians, orchestrated a suicide attack in eastern Afghanistan that killed seven American civilian CIA employees, and attempted to explode a car bomb in Times Square in May of 2010. Former Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, responded to Mehsud’s death by saying, “all peace-loving Pakistanis should be satisfied that a monster who had unleashed terror in Pakistan and elsewhere is dead.”
After a short-lived moment of victory, both Pakistan and the U.S. are now facing the repercussions of Mehsud’s assassination. As many Pakistanis cheered the death of one of their most wanted men, others have begun to fear retaliation in the form of suicide attacks. Seth Jones, a military expert for the RAND Corporation, pointed out that Americans could face an elevated threat level as well. The CIA’s assassination of the TTP’s previous leader, Baitullah Mehsud, is now believed to have been a motivating factor in the failed Times Square bombing. Today, while yet leader of the Pakistani Taliban is dead at the hands of the CIA, another is already in the process of taking his place. Within 24 hours of their leader’s death, the Taliban’s shura, or governing council, gathered together to appoint Hakimullah Mehsud’s successor. In Pakistan, we seem to be in the process of terrorist whack-a-mole, batting down one leader only to have another pop up to take his place.
Saturday’s peace talks, needless to say, were another casualty of Friday’s drone strike. Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, called the assassination, “not just the killing of one person, [but] the death of all peace efforts,” complaining that, “whenever Pakistan has attempted talks, drone attacks have sabotaged them.” Even Afghani President Hamid Karzai added his voice to the fray, agreeing that the strike, “took place at an unsuitable time.” Pakistani conservatives across the country responded to the assassination with outrage, calling the strike an infringement on state sovereignty. Mr. Sharif’s government responded with a warning to Pakistan’s U.S. Ambassador: “Ambassador, take this government seriously. If drone attacks don’t cease there will be a standoff.” Just yesterday, the Tehrik-i-Insaf, the ruling party of Pakistan’s northwest province, voted to block NATO supply lines by November 20 if the United States does not bring its drone program to a halt. This threat is intended to pressure the Sharif government to toughen its negotiations with the United States in the coming weeks, although whether it will be successful remains to be seen.
As the Obama administration continues it efforts to fight terrorism in Pakistan, it is becoming increasingly difficult to weigh the costs and benefits of our actions. We can only wonder how long administration officials worked to improve relations with their Pakistani counterparts, only to get the call that Mehsud could be taken out – at the risk of sacrificing the progress they had made. Faced with the decision to eliminate a dangerous terrorist or to ensure peace talks with a man The Guardian called, “hardly Pakistan’s great hope for peace,” one cannot be surprised by their decision. On the other hand, the response of the Pakistani people is equally unsurprising. They are reacting to the latest in a program that invades their sovereignty and continues to kill scores of their civilians. As the fight against the Pakistani Taliban continues, we may be entering a pivotal month. The full consequences of Mehsud’s assassination are yet to be determined, and whether Mr. Sharif will be able to reschedule his negotiations with the Taliban remains to be seen. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, we can be sure of one thing: Our desire for diplomacy will continue to be pitted against the need to eliminate terrorists. None of our decisions will be without sacrifice, and only in hindsight will their true consequences become clear.