Timing of the two drone attacks on October, 31 rather than their effects made the event sensational. Like Hakimullah Mehsud (HUM), a number of leading figures of the TPP have earlier been eliminated through similar drone attacks. However, this time, just a day before the latest attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had announced in London that the dialogue process with the Taliban had begun. This claim was, however, promptly denied by the TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid. A three member government delegation was to proceed to make preliminary face-to-face contacts with the TTP leadership on November, 2. The government had finalised the team comprising government officials, politicians, clerics, intellectuals and defence experts. Formal talks were expected within a couple of weeks. And during the talks, both sides were likely to observe an unannounced ceasefire.
However, after the drone strikes the three-member government team has been asked to suspend their trip till further instructions. In fact, every time Pakistan is close to find out a negotiated settlement of the militancy issue, and attempts to tame the disgruntled Taliban through parleys, the process is sabotaged by the string pullers at Washington. It is surprising that drone attacks have increased since Nawaz Sharif returned from his recent visit to the US; and his aids have since then been predicting a sharp decline. Previous governments kept a wavering public stance on drone attacks, however the present government has taken a firm stand to put an end to drone attacks, but the US may not oblige it at least for a year or so. If the government of Pakistan wants an immediate end to such attacks, the only option may be to shoot them down; however, such an action would have its downside.
Decapitation or the strategy of killing top commanders of terrorist groups is quite important from the counter-terrorism standpoint. But considering the loose structure, vague ideology and motivation of the TTP, this strategy may not work. Organizations like the TTP are never short on leadership; hence killing of HUM may not affect the TTP’s continuity in carrying out attacks. A close aide of HUM, Khan Said alias Sajnaa, has already taken over as the Ameer (Chief) of the TTP. There could be a violent backlash in the form of reprisal attacks, in various parts of the country. If the group stages large-scale attacks, it would be an indicator of its strength and viability. Failure to do so would indicate a decline leading to its gradual fizzling out.
The fateful drone attacks came when the TTP leadership was holding a consultative session about the upcoming dialogue with the government. Attack inflicted strategic damage on the TTP, and a temporary delay in the TTP-government dialogue. Both Pakistan and the United States had announced plentiful head money on HUM. He had survived at least two similar US drone strikes in the past. In 2010, Hakimullah had appeared in a video with a Jordanian double agent suicide bomber claiming responsibility for the CampChapman attack killing seven CIA officers and contractors in the Afghan province of Khost.
Construct of the event was revealed by an official of the local political administration; he informed that: “A remotely piloted US aircraft fired two missiles at a house in the Dandi Darpakhel area, one kilometre north of Miramshah, the TTP headquarters of North Waziristan, around 7:15pm.” Six suspected militants were killed including Hakimullah’s cousin Tariq Mehsud, his driver Abdullah Mehsud and his personal guards. Drone fired two missiles on Hakimullah’s double-cabin SUV while it was driving into his house. Two persons sitting in the front seat and three in the back seat were killed, while two guards sitting on the rear cargo bed of the 4X4 were critically wounded.
Government of Pakistan promptly condemned the deadly strike which, analysts believe, could scuttle an embryonic peace process with the TTP. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, in his immediate reaction, said the drone strike was aimed at sabotaging the peace talks with the Taliban. “The drone attack took place at a time when the government was about to send negotiators to formally engage the Taliban in talks,” he said. Foreign Office spokesperson Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry also said in a statement that drone strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is an across the board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end.
In an associated yet mysterious development, on November 1, Shura (the consultative body)of the Mujahideen in North Waziristan warned tribesmen living in Dandi Darpakhel, Miramshah, Dattakhel, Tol Khel, Tabbi, Danday and Machis to leave their areas within a week. The warning was prompted by the recent skirmishes between the TTP and the security forces. Pamphlets distributed in these areas read that a peace agreement between the group and the government would remain intact.
Earlier also, a number of high profile TTP leaders have been taken out through drone attacks, these include Nek Muhammad, Baitullah Mehsud Qari Hussain, Maulvi Nazir, Waliur Rehman Mehsud etc. Most of these commanders were killed when they showed inclination to enter into a negotiation with Pakistan. HUM also met a similar fate.
Hakimullah’s death will also be highly consequential for the so-called peace talks between the government and the TTP. In the short run, the prospect of talks would seem to have vanished altogether. But as time passes by, factionalism may increase inside the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban, led by Asmatullah Muawiyah, could gain further strength. Muawiyah had welcomed the offer of peace talks by the government without Hakimullah’s prior consent, prompting the latter to expel him from TTP ranks; later HUM reconciled. Intelligence estimates indicate that TTP factions in favour of talks outnumber those opposed to parleys. This may be the reason why Hakimullah himself gave up his anti-negotiation stance and showed his willingness to hold talks. Hakimullah’s elimination will further factionalise TTP, most of which ultimately may agree to hold talks.
On America’s part, such a move makes sense because if the TTP enters a peace deal with the government, their entire militant potential would be diverted toward US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. At a time when the US forces are increasingly pulling out of Afghanistan, such a development may cause considerable hindrance to a safe withdrawal. Recently, Americans had forcibly snatched No2 leader of the TTP, Lateef Mehsud, from Afghan intelligence operatives and taken him to Bagram. The latest attack may have come as a result of debriefing of Lateef.
Irrespective of the anti-drone public opinion in Pakistan, the elimination of Hakimullah yet again proves the efficacy of the drones in the war against terror. Hakimullah’s death may be a setback for peace in the immediate future. However, in the long run, it may be a huge opportunity in the form of operational degradation of the TTP.
This is indeed a test of the national leadership to credibly distance itself from the attacks killing HUM and make incremental movement toward re-railing the negotiation process. Quality of leadership is one of the key determinants in such circumstances. These attacks are not likely to cause any significant degradation in Pak-US relations. Probably there would be nothing beyond usual noises because there aren’t many rungs below the present standing of bilateral relations, at least at the public level. Likewise, elimination of HUM would not cause a log term disruption in the government-TTP dialogue process because both sides hardly have any other option.
Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI. He is a member panel of experts, CPGS. Email:Khalid3408@gmail.com