Downing Drones

Spearhead Analysis – 07.11.2013

By Zoon Ahmad Khan
Research Analysts, Spearhead Research – Pakistan

Downing DronesTwenty four hours after Nawaz Sharif had announced the initiation of much awaited peace talks with the TTP Leadership, a drone strike turned Hakimullah Mehsud to dust. Mehsud, leader of the terrorist outfit after founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in 2009, was going to lead the peace deal from the TTP’s side. For the Pakistan government, immersed in the war against terrorism for more than a decade now, and simultaneously perturbed by the drone strikes that have escalated since President Barrack Obama took oath, Mehsud’s death has left a bittersweet aftertaste.

Chaudhary Nisar, Interior Minister tasked by Nawaz Sharif with carrying out the peace process, denounced the drone strike as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the peace process. Pakistan Foreign Office, headless, called the attack a violation of Pakistan’s Sovereignty. While certain groups have gone to the extent of calling Mehsud a ‘martyr’, for majority the bittersweet sentiment stems out of the lack of regard for Pakistan’s right to self determination.  For most of Pakistan, the drone attack that took Mehsud’s life on 1 November 2013 was an act of foreign aggression.

As new TTP leadership braces itself under ‘Uncle Sajna’ – more formally Commander Khan Said, the future of much sought peace talks with the TTP seems bleak at best. Their leader’s sudden death has however also highlighted cracks within the top tier as differences among various sub groups arise. Khan Said’s own appointment after Wali Rehman in May 2013 was controversial as neither Taliban Shura, nor Hakimullah Mehsud was consulted. The deliberate silence on part of Hakimullah’s supporters served to feign unity, but for how long can this pretense be maintained?

While the TTP leadership grapples with her own structural discrepancies, Pakistan is expecting a serious political backlash in the aftermath of Mehsud’s killing. Despite the TTP’s adamancy to stop the bombing and killing of Pakistan’s civilians, the government launched talks, after taking all political parties on board. Political opponents of the ruling party, especially PTI Chief Imran Khan, played a vital role in pushing the government towards a solution. A 12 member delegation met TTP Representatives at a secret location on 30 October, and a second meeting was scheduled for 2 November.

Winning talks with the Taliban, preventing his political opponents from political scoring, and continuing good relations with the United States have put the newly elected government in a Catch-22 situation. Finding a way out will take time, patience and political acumen. Sharif might face difficulty convincing the United States government to give up drone strikes. Kerry, in his swift visit to Pakistan, assured that the drone strikes will end, soon. After Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, the Salala attack and Raymond Davis the two seem to have come a long way. But come 1 November 2013, the political opposition wants blockade of the NATO supply route once again.

While financial assistance has raised questions for the American tax payers and even in Pakistan regarding the ‘intent’ behind such assistance, the fact remains that Pakistan is a key ally till the NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US continues to help Pakistan financially through the IMF, and the more recent approval of $6.6 billion in exchange for the usual commitment: budget reduction from 8.5% to 3.5% of the GDP in three years.

2014 is a key year- thousands of American soldiers and tons of equipment will leave Afghanistan via Pakistan, definitely not a good time to alienate Islamabad. For the US saying Mission Accomplished with bin Laden’s death; and leaving the coalition casualties at 3,393 would be much easier. Chasing ambiguous ideals like ‘freedom’ and ensuring strong democratic institutions and sustainable mechanisms all must be left to the Afghans and their neighbors, who stand vulnerable. While redeeming themselves of the burden of any ugly aftermath might seem simple in theory, it is only natural that the US will continue to have a stake in the region. Like 9/11, any other attack on the US is possible, so extremism even twelve time zones away, will remain a threat.

So the million dollar question remains: what after 2014? Washington may be willing to maintain a presence and drone attacks to avoid an attack akin to 9/11. And to justify this presence the US has “unstable Pakistan’s nuclear weapons” as an excuse to linger on. Given India’s own internal economic quandary, the US realized only a bit too late that India, in the presence of China and a dynamic Russia will be unable to suffice as a balancing power. So ‘preparing’ India for the role of confidante was perhaps premature to begin with. Will the US’ strategy of disregarding Pakistan’s right to face her domestic issues keep Islamabad under Washington’s thumb, or result in the loss of a key ally: we cannot know for sure. So far neither the US nor Pakistan can afford to forgo this roguish partnership.