Taliban chief's killing exposes poison in Pakistan-US relationship

The drone killing of Hakimullah Mehsud has triggered a wave of anger among Pakistan's elite, with the US accused of sabotaging peace moves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 4:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 6:22am

In life, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was Public Enemy No.1: a ruthless figure who devoted his career to bloodshed and mayhem against his own people as well as foreigners, whom Pakistani pundits occasionally accused of being a pawn of Indian, and even American, intelligence.

But after his death Pakistani hearts have apparently grown fonder. Since missiles fired by American drones killed Mehsud on Friday, Pakistan's political leaders have reacted with unusual vehemence.

The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, denounced the strike as sabotaging budding government peace talks with the Taliban. Pakistani media commentators blasted American treachery. And the former cricket star Imran Khan, now a politician, renewed his threats to block Nato military supply lines through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province his Tehreek-e-Insaf party controls; a parliamentary vote was scheduled for yesterday.

Virtually no one publicly cheered the demise of Mehsud (whose death had been reported several times previously but who does indeed appear finally to have been killed this time around). He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians, mostly through suicide bombings.

To some American security analysts, the furious reaction was another sign of the perversity and ingratitude that they say has scarred Pakistan's relationship with the United States. "It's another stab in the back," says Bill Roggio, whose website, the Long War Journal, monitors drone strikes. "Even those of us who watch Pakistan closely don't know where they stand anymore. It's such a double game."

To many Pakistanis, though, it is the United States that is double dealing, and sentiments like Roggio's exemplify American arrogance. Shireen Mazari, a senior official in Khan's party, has urged the Pakistani military to shoot down drones.

But if the equivocation over Mehsud's death seems to be just another manifestation of the diseased relationship between the two countries, it is rooted in a complex mix of psychology and politics that may be central to the way Pakistanis see their arch- allies, the Americans.

The fractious relations partly stem from Pakistan's failure to counter a stubborn insurgency.

After years of Taliban-induced humiliations and bloodshed, and of heavy American pressure to step up military action against the Taliban, Pakistan's political and security establishments still agree that starting peace talks with the Taliban is the best course.

Such talks may have had slim chances of success - previous negotiations quickly foundered - but Mehsud's death appears to have thoroughly derailed talks, at least for now. What's more, Pakistanis have a history of rooting for people the West has deemed villains, and against people the West has praised.

Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who is serving an 86-year jail sentence in New York for trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan, is a virtual national hero, popularly known as the "daughter of the nation".

On the other side, Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year, making her an icon around the world, has been demonised in Pakistan, where she is regularly called a CIA agent or a pawn of the West.

These adversarial reactions stem in part from Pakistanis' perception of their country's history with the United States. In their view, it is a long story of treachery, abandonment and double crossing: the United States, many Pakistanis believe, used Pakistan during the cold war, dropped the relationship in the 1990s, and has since tried to steal the Pakistani army's nuclear arsenal. Then came the CIA drones.

In recent years, that resentment has been bolstered by a growing sense of impotence among Pakistanis: the country's own security forces failed to find or capture Osama bin Laden, for instance, despite the compound being barely a kilometre from the Pakistan Military Academy. It also took a US drone to kill the previous Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2009.

"In a sense, this has nothing to do with Malala or Aafia Siddiqui or Hakimullah," says Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University in the US who is Pakistani. "These people are just characters in a larger relationship that has become so poisonous."

In the conflagration over Hakimullah Mehsud's death, Najam says, the government has failed to distinguish between opposition to drone strikes and to the removal of a homicidal, militant enemy.

"It's very destructive that we can't untangle these two things," he says. "The reaction has become absolutely absurd."

Analysts say this reaction also holds lessons for the Obama administration, showing that drone strikes will always struggle for legitimacy because the covert programme operates in the shadows of international law.

For now, the ball is in Khan's court. If his party votes to block American supplies bound for Afghanistan, it would make life difficult for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who opposes closing the supply lines, but has nonetheless vowed to press ahead with Taliban peace talks.

Concern for the fate of those talks has been used to justify the most vehement criticism of Mehsud's killing. Amid all the enthusiasm for negotiations, Pakistani politicians have yet to publicly address the first hurdle: deciding what the government would be willing to concede to the Taliban, given that the movement's central aim is to overthrow the state itself.