An irrevocable decision - Najam Sethi - 8th November 2013


Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in Waziristan since 2009, is dead, thanks to a drone strike. His TTP predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who boasted of killing Benazir Bhutto, was also dispatched by a drone strike.

Hakeemullah was a sworn enemy of Pakistan and the US, with head money of Rs 5 crore and Rs 50 crore respectively. The TTP and its various franchises have killed over 3000 Pakistani soldiers/policemen and over 40,000 civilians since 2009. He was wanted by the US for helping Al-Qaeda’s operative Khalil Abu Mulal-al-Belawi launch a suicide-terrorist attack in Afghanistan that killed 7 CIA operatives. He was also behind the aborted Times Square New York bombing by a Pakistani in 2010. A little known fact – his cousin Qari Hussain Mehsud was a prominent activist of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – testifies to the TTP’s links with sectarian organisations that have attacked and killed hundreds of Shias in Karachi and Balochistan. Another recently revealed fact points to a dangerous liaison between the TTP and Afghan Intelligence to attack Pakistan’s armed forces – his second-in-command Latifullah Mehsud was recently arrested by US forces in Afghanistan while he was en route to conspiring with Afghan Intel in Kabul.

Significantly, Hakeemullah Mehsud was against peace talks with Pakistan. In a recent interview to BBC he laid down impossible pre-conditions – an end to drone strikes, withdrawal of the army from Waziristan, release of all Taliban captured and held by the military, and monetary compensation for Taliban dead in the conflict — for any dialogue with Islamabad. Indeed, following the last APC in September that called for dialogue with the TTP, Hakeemullah gave the nod for four vicious attacks by TTP franchises which led to the death of a Maj-General and Colonel of the Pak army, scores of Christians in a church and Muslim shoppers in Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, followed by the assassination of the KPK law minister.

Why then is Munawar Hussain, the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, calling Hakeemullah Mehsud a “martyr” when he is a mass murderer? Why is Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan insisting that the peace initiative has been sabotaged by the drone strike when Hakeemullah was, far from supporting a dialogue, actually conspiring with Afghan intelligence to undermine Pakistan? Why is Imran Khan so outraged that he is calling for an indefinite halt to NATO supplies and a rupture in Pak-US ties when a joint operation by US and Pakistan has successfully got rid of a terrible menace to both countries?

Imran Khan and Munawar Hussain are playing the worst sort of party politics anyone can play at the altar of the national interest. They are trying to create a crisis for the Sharif regime at home and abroad to atone for, and distract attention from, their abysmal performance in running the KPK provincial coalition government. Their expectation is that the crippling burden of everyday life under the Sharif administration coupled with populist-nationalist outrage against US drone strikes, will tilt the country into strikes and chaos, derail the developing US-Pakistan strategic relationship (which currently accounts for nearly $10 billion in IMF, Coalition Support Fund and Kerry-Lugar aid to Pakistan), and pave the way for regime change.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s outrage is partly genuine because he feels personally done in by a potential spoke in the wheels of the dialogue with the TTP that he is planning as a prelude to a forceful military operation when the dialogue fails; and partly feigned because he doesn’t want the opposition to steal the thunder of the anti-US narrative and give the TTP an opportunity to lay the blame for failure at the door of the government. The PPP, ANP and MQM are trying to tread the middle path by not going the whole hog with either Imran Khan or Chaudhry Nisar. It is not in their interest to help sow the seeds of disorder that leads to “revolutionary” regime change and international isolation. What next?

We may expect everyone to huff and puff in parliament to show their anti-American and pro-Pakistan credentials. A resolution will most likely follow asking the government to continue with its peace talks initiative but stops short of calling for a prolonged halt to NATO strikes. The PTI will then shift the focus to KPK where the assembly will demand a halt to NATO supplies. But the political alliance will not succeed in making any significant impact.

The real questions remain unanswered. When, not if, the peace talk initiative crumbles for one reason or another, will the Sharif regime order the army into Waziristan to take advantage of the military and political disarray in which the TTP finds itself in the midst of a power struggle for leadership? Or will the Sharif government continue to drift until another drone strike or a TTP backlash pushes it into one corner or another and compels it to take an irrevocable decision?