Dr Claude Rakisits, an Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at Deakin University, has been a keen observer of Pakistan for over 30 years. Last year he was an Australian delegate to a 1.5 Track Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan.
The drone attack which killed Hakimullah Mehsud last Friday will be another body blow to the Pakistani Taliban, known in Pakistan as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP’s number two was also killed by a drone strike in May.
The TTP is Pakistan's largest terrorist group, operating mainly from the tribal area of North Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan. No one is quite sure how many fighters the TTP can claim but it is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000.
Created in 2007, the TTP is a ruthless terrorist organisation responsible for spreading death and destruction throughout Pakistan but especially in the north-west of the country. Some 40,000 civilians have been killed in the process. Its preferred modus operandi is the use of suicide bombers in crowded places such as markets, mosques and churches, but it has also executed some highly audacious attacks against army posts, prisons and military and intelligence headquarters.
The TTP has no qualms about eliminating anyone opposed to the Taliban’s drive to impose its medieval Islamic rule. It was responsible for shooting in the head 13-year old Malala Yousafzai for advocating education for girls, and was probably behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
Publicly, Islamabad is upset with the US over the attack, accusing Washington of sabotaging peace talks between the government and the TTP. Reportedly, a delegation of clerics was to meet with the TTP the day after the drone strike with a formal invitation to begin talks. Such talks had been approved at a Pakistani All-Party Conference in September. No pre-conditions had been imposed by the Pakistan Government.
But the TTP did have pre-conditions: all 150,000 army troops deployed in the tribal areas had to leave and all TTP prisoners had to be released from gaol.
It is unclear what the Government’s reaction was to such demands, but one can be certain that for the army, which has lost some 5000 men fighting the TTP, this would be a bridge too far. Last year in Peshawar, I met the general in command of troops in the tribal areas, and he didn’t look like someone ready to cut deals with the terrorists. General Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff, has repeatedly said that the Taliban would have to first put down its arms. However, Kayani's tenure ends in three weeks, so it will be up to his successor to deal with that thorny issue.
The death of Hakimullah Mehsud doesn’t necessarily mean the talks are off, though they will undoubtedly be put on hold until the TTP picks a new leader. But regardless of who becomes the new leader, it is difficult to see what the parties will be negotiating.
The TTP is a motley association of terrorist groups divided by personalities, tribal affiliation and differences over tactics and targets. It wants to impose Sharia law throughout the country and end Pakistan's alliance with the US. It is difficult to see even Taliban-friendly Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreeing to such an endgame. In any case, the Pakistani army won't allow it, regardless of who replaces General Kayani.
What's more, negotiating with the Taliban is a fraught affair, with few guarantees that any deal will stick or bring peace. The governments of General Musharraf and President Asif Ali Zardari cut several deals with the Taliban and each one failed because the TTP reneged.
The broken deal which had the worst repercussions was the one in the Swat Valley in 2009. Instead of putting down its weapons as it was meant to, the Taliban kept advancing towards Islamabad. It took 35,000 troops to dislodge the terrorists, with most fleeing into the tribal areas or across the border into Afghanistan after destroying much of the infrastructure in the Swat Valley, an area once frequented by Western tourists.
Any deal with the TTP which leads to a reduced Pakistan army footprint in the tribal areas would provide the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network with even more operational space to launch attacks against Western troops leaving Afghanistan. This would be bad news for everyone, including for Australia as we prepare to exit. Washington would certainly protest such an outcome. However, the Obama Administration will have to tread carefully, as it needs Pakistani cooperation in order to repatriate hundreds of thousands of containers of military and other materiel back to the US. Alternative routes are much longer and more expensive.
The drone issue is highly sensitive in Pakistan. It is the single most important issue fueling Pakistan's already rampant anti-Americanism, and the Pakistani Government ignores it at its peril. And while privately not too many people in the Pakistani Government will miss Hakimullah, Prime Minister Sharif will still need to be seen to be doing something about his killing. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose party runs the government of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering the tribal areas, is demanding an immediate halt to the NATO convoys.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani Government has decided to review the whole US-Pakistan relationship. Last time it had such a review in the wake of the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO strike on the Afghan-Pakistan border in early 2012, Pakistan stopped truck convoys from rolling through Pakistan for seven months until it got an apology of sorts from then Secretary of State Clinton. And although Islamabad relies on American economic largesse to assist it through its difficult times, unless Washington promises something substantial on the drone front, a similar outcome is not out of the question.