Contrary to the angry assertions of Pakistan’s top politicians, senior military officials believe the US has removed a major hurdle to peace between the state and the Taliban by killing Hakimullah Mehsud.
Unlike some of his predecessors who went rouge after a period of patronage, the slain commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had been on the list of bad guys ever since he rose to prominence. He was involved in frequent attacks on soldiers and military installations, and was rigid in his stance against Pakistan.
When the armed forces endorsed the peace overtures spearheaded by the PML-Nawaz following the All Parties Conference (APC) after the elections, they had little hope the process succeed with Hakimullah leading the other side. He was accused of being an agent of Afghan and Indian spy agencies, and his deputy had been arrested by the US in October when he was in Afghanistan for a meeting with Afghan intelligence officials.
Once a smalltime shopkeeper, Hakimullah joined the Taliban and first made headlines when he abducted 300 Pakistani soldiers in 2007. The government had to release 25 hardcore militants in exchange for those troops. In 2009, he masterminded an audacious attack on the military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
[quote]Hakimullah rose to prominence when he abducted 300 Pakistani soldiers in 2007[/quote]
The same year, he appeared in a video with Abu Mulal al Balawi, a Jordanian Al Qaeda operative who killed seven CIA operatives in Khost province of Afghanistan. American intelligence agencies believed Hakimullah facilitated the attack. He was also accused of training and facilitating the New York Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
The US had put a $5 million bounty on his head, and Pakistan had announced a reward of Rs 50 million for information leading to his arrest or killing. Many in the Pakistani establishment called him the country’s number one enemy. He was known for his brutal tactics.
A former security official who monitored preliminary work on the dialogue process said the government would be in a better bargaining position with the Taliban after Hakimullah’s death.
People’s Party spokesman Farhatullah Babar also said the killing of key militant commanders could strengthen the government’s position.
Jamaat-e-Islami veteran Prof Khurshid Ahmed disagreed. He said the Taliban would avenge their leader’s killing and militancy would intensify. He accused the United States of sabotaging the peace process on purpose. Syed Munawar Hassan, the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, said he was a martyr. Mualana Fazlur Rehman joined the chorus.
Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan was also furious at Hakimullah’s killing. He has given the federal government a November-20 deadline to respond to the attack by blocking the supplies to NATO troops going through Pakistan. He warned on the floor of the National Assembly that his party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would do so unilaterally.
A federal cabinet member said the PML-N government would not shut down the NATO supply route. The Pakistan People’s Party, Awami National Party and Muttahida Quami Movement have opposed the demand.
Defense analyst Shahzad Chaudhry, a retired air vice marshal, said blocking NATO supplies will not stop the United States from carrying out drone attacks in future. The move might add to Pakistan’s problems, said Brig (r) Asad Munir, who has served in the tribal areas. He said the action would not be taken as only anti-US. All NATO countries would react to it.
While key political leaders were seen as mourning the Taliban leader’s death, PPP’s young chairman Bilawal Bhutto minced no words in condemning those he called Taliban apologists. A silent majority of Pakistanis is happy, he said in a statement, and those who call Hakimullah a martyr should be tried for treason.
“Hakimullah Mehsud was the enemy number one of Pakistan,” Senator Farhatullah Babar added. “He was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent Pakistani civilians and soldiers. Glorifying him as a hero is disgusting.”
He did explain that his party did not favor US drone attacks in FATA. “It was general Musharraf who made that agreement with the Americans. The People’s Party government inherited the situation. And it was always opposed to such strikes.”
Raja Zafarul Haq, the PML-N chairman, said all political parties agreed to holding a dialogue with Taliban, and the unavoidable delay his party’s government was being criticized for was necessary to prepare a framework for the negotiations.
[quote]Those who call Hakimullah a martyr should be tried for treason, said Bilawal [/quote]
Jan Achakzai, the spokesman of Fazlur Rehman’s faction of JUI, said shooting down drones or blocking NATO supplies could help pressure the US into listening to Pakistan, but admitted that Pakistan would then have to be prepared to face the consequences.
The American response has been diplomatic so far. White House Spokesman Jay Carney conceded that the killing of Hakimullah had heightened tensions between Pakistan and the US, but said Washington wanted to enhance strategic cooperation with Islamabad.
US secretary of state John Kerry said Hakimullah was “known to have targeted and killed many Americans, many Afghans and many Pakistanis. A huge number of Pakistanis have died at the hands of Mehsud and his terrorist organization.”
Security officials admit privately that the Hakimullah’s killing might help Pakistan more than it would hurt it. As key politicians responded angrily to his death, rare statements opposing the Taliban leader came mostly from retired army officers.
Maj Gen (r) Athar Abbas, a former military spokesman, said in a TV program that the US had helped Pakistan by killing the TTP chief, who he said was being funded by Afghan spies against Pakistan.
Also speaking to a TV channel after reports of the attack, Brig Asad Munir said talks between the government and the Taliban were not likely anyway, especially because Mehsud would have made demands that were against the Pakistani constitution, and the government could not accept them. He said Hakimullah was responsible for killing thousands of Pakistanis.
Shahzad Raza is a journalist based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shahzadrez