Taliban Mehsud's death risks US-Pakistan thaw
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban risks reversing a thaw between the nations two weeks after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cited improved ties to woo investment on a visit to Washington.
Pakistan will review "every aspect" of cooperation with the U.S. following the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud on Friday in North Waziristan, which violated an agreement to refrain from targeting the group during peace talks, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters two days ago. Imran Khan, whose party controls the militancy ravaged northwest, threatened to block NATO supply routes in the region.
Sharif, who won a May election after pledging to hold peace talks with the Taliban, faces his greatest challenge since becoming premier for the third time as he considers his response to the U.S. amid a campaign to stabilize the $231 billion economy. Chronic energy shortages and the Taliban insurgency have hamstrung the nation, which in September secured a $6.6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
"Pakistan can't afford to break its relationship with the U.S. when the economy is in such a dreadful shape," Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said in a phone interview. "At the same time, this attack is a big blow to his peace move. We will see some hardening of his attitude towards the U.S., but that will not translate into policy actions. In the short run, he will not want to be seen as a weak leader."
The U.S. plans to provide more than $300 million in aid to fund power, road and education projects in Pakistan as part of the release of $1.6 billion in mostly military assistance that was held up by Congress when relations soured.
With Pakistan's regional influence central to assuring a smooth U.S. military exit from neighboring Afghanistan, the two nations were at a turning point in a relationship strained by events of the past three years, including the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the death of 24 Pakistani troops in a U.S. airstrike near the Afghan border.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. ambassador Richard Olson on Saturday to protest the drone strike that killed Mehsud. The interior minister said the U.S. had "interfered" with the peace process.
"This is a temporary reaction mainly targeting the domestic audience," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based independent security analyst who formerly taught at Columbia University in New York. "I don't think the military will allow to turn this into a complete breakdown, especially when the Afghan end-game is so near and Pakistan needs U.S. help to secure the IMF money."
Top Taliban commanders will continue to hold meetings over the next few days to agree on a new leader, the Associated Press reported Saturday. Thousands of families fled Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, and surrounding villages after the political administration decided to impose a curfew, the Dawn newspaper reported Saturday.
Mehsud was indicted in the U.S. for his alleged role in a suicide bombing that killed seven Central Intelligence Agency employees in Afghanistan in 2009.
His death may worsen Pakistan's internal strife if Taliban groups escalate their bombing campaign in retaliation and cricketer-turned-politician Khan uses his street power to block NATO routes, Waseem said.
"We won't let these supplies pass even if we have to sacrifice our government" in the province, Khan, who strongly opposes the U.S. drone campaign, said two days ago at a news conference in Lahore.
Pakistan closed Afghan supply routes from its Karachi port in November 2011 in retaliation against a U.S. airstrike that killed its soldiers instead of intended militant targets. They were reopened months later after the U.S. formally apologized over the killings.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which will end its combat role in Afghanistan in 2014, needs Pakistan's routes to supply its forces and remove equipment as they withdraw.
"I don't think Pakistan will take that path again," said Waseem, referring to the closing of the routes. "After all, Taliban are the enemy of the state and no side in this conflict wants to be seen standing on their side."