How the U.S. drone strike on the Pakistani Taliban undermines Sharif’s government

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No one will cry for the death of Waliur Rehman.USflagPakistan Flag Icon

As the second-in-command of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (i.e., what’s commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban), he’s responsible for many of the destabilizing attacks that the TTP effected in the lead-up to the May 11 parliamentary election.  In selectively targeting the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی‎) and its allies, it effectively prevented the leaders of the PPP from openly and publicly campaigning, and they actually forced the son of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, out of the country during the last days of the campaign.

Rehman, in particular, is also responsible for attacks in Afghanistan as well, including perhaps seven CIA employees in a strike on Afghanistan, according to the U.S. government, and it added him to its list of specially designated global terrorists in September 2010.

So, in a vacuum, the U.S. drone strike that has killed him (and five other individuals) Wednesday morning is good news, right?

Probably not, especially if you’re cheering for a more secure Pakistan.

Following the near-landslide victory of Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N, اکستان مسلم لیگ ن), Sharif announced that he would seek peace talks with the TTP.  Although the TTP has rejected elections as incompatible with Islamic teaching, they targeted the former PPP government and its allies because they presumably knew that Sharif would be more sympathetic.  Sharif’s post-election overtures to the TTP stood the best chance at negotiating an end to the TTP’s bombings, shootings and kidnappings than any initiative in over six years.  Moreover, Rehman and his supporters within the TTP were relative moderates, with ties to the mainstream Islamist party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (جمیعت علمائے اسلام‎), and he would have been a key player in any peace negotiations with the Sharif government.  His death means that the TTP has lost its most prominent counterbalance to the more hardline TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.

The TTP has called off its peace overtures to Sharif following the U.S. drone strike, accusing Pakistan’s government of complicity with the United States.

So with six days until Sharif is set to be sworn into power, the United States has undermined one of his incoming government’s top initiatives — a peace deal with the TTP that is absolutely vital to rebuilding the Pakistani economy.  That makes Sharif look incredibly weak, at least publicly. It’s nearly as bad as the European Union cramming a haircut on Cypriot depositors two weeks after the inauguration of Cyprus’s new president Nicos Anastasiades.

Drone strikes have become incredibly unpopular among the Pakistani electorate — not only do they believe the strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but they believe the strikes have killed too many innocent civilians, and even U.S. president Barack Obama has admitted that the strikes have killed innocents.  Now, the first drone strike following Pakistan’s election on May 11 is one that has singlehandedly diminished any chances in the short-term of a quick peace deal to end the TTP-sponsored violence.

You can understand why Pakistanis are angry with the United States — the following comes from the editorial board of The Nation, one of Pakistan’s leading dailies:

No doubt, the drones took out diehard terrorists like Baitullah Mehsud and several other top ranking terrorists.  But, if the insurgency has shown signs of abating in this region as a consequence, as the US claims, it has taken root in other parts of the world: Yemen and Somalia, for instance, not to talk of other Middle Eastern countries. Thus, from the American perspective, militancy has gone out of hand, is not contained…

[U.S.] persistence in drones would greatly jeopardise the revival of Pakistan economy the both political parties want, and a friendly country must not create hurdles in achieving the goal.  Let it be clear, no one mourns Wali-Ur-Rehman. What may well be mourned, is the loss of an opportunity to negotiate an end to the violence.

What we still don’t know about the U.S. drone strikes, of course, is how much cooperation that U.S. forces have with the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence regime that still retains much control over Pakistan’s security policy.  We don’t know if the U.S. government has  explicit permission from the Pakistani military to conduct the drone strikes — after all, U.S. skeptics argue, why doesn’t Pakistan’s air force just shoot the drones down if they are so offensive?

We also don’t know if the U.S. government has complicit permission from the outgoing PPP government or if the U.S. government (or the Pakistani military) even cares about the civilian government’s permission, given how minor the role that the civilian government plays in security policy.  We also don’t know how that might have been set to change under Sharif’s government, which is set to be sworn in on June 5 — was the drone strike on Rehman conducted with the U.S. window of opportunity quick closing from a more permissive lame-duck government?

The lack of transparency even allows the U.S. government, both the outgoing and incoming Pakistani governments and the Pakistani military and intelligence communities to play a shell game — no one even has to collude as a formal matter in order to play a ‘good cop / bad cop’ routine.  In public, Sharif and the outgoing PPP leaders can attack the U.S. strikes; in private, they can cooperate with them.

But when it comes to Pakistan’s 184-million-strong population (whose median age, by the way, is just under 22 years old), the issue is clear enough, and opinion has soured on the United States, ostensibly a Pakistani ally.  On the campaign trail, Sharif vowed to take a more strident line with U.S. drone strikes.  His main opposition (aside from incumbent president Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto and the PPP), Imran Khan, was even more strident.  Not only did Khan call for an end to U.S. drone strikes, he promised as prime minister simply to shoot the drones down.  Khan won’t be prime minister, but the party that he leads, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک), was elected to lead the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a remote northwestern province of Pakistan near the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that have taken the brunt of many of the U.S. drone strikes.  So the days of maximum U.S. impunity with respect to drone strikes are coming to an end — that’s clear enough even from the U.S. legal and constitutional perspective.

U.S. military forces will leave Afghanistan later this year, so there’s additional pressure on making Afghanistan as stable as possible when that drawdown occurs, and it seems like the U.S. interest in killing Rehman has more to do with retribution for the TTP’s attacks in Afghanistan than on its destabilizing role in Pakistan.  But even if it’s in the U.S. interest vis-à-vis Afghanistan to kill Rehman, it’s difficult to see how that’s in the U.S. interest vis-à-vis Pakistan.  It hardly makes strategic sense for the United States to pull out of Afghanistan with some semblance of stability at the cost of instability in Pakistan, which is after all a nuclear-armed country with five times as many people and an economy that’s 11 times larger than Afghanistan’s.

Moreover, because the Obama administration will pay a heavy price if Afghanistan immediately falls apart in 2014, there’s a huge political incentive as well.  But to force Pakistan to internalize the costs of Afghan security seems incredibly short-sighted.

Photo credit to APF — Pakistani troops guard the damaged office of the Muttahida Quami Movement, a liberal political party in Karachi earlier this month.

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