Pakistan - FATA shenanigans

New Delhi, June 3 (ANI): On the face of it, the May 29, 2013 U.S. drone strike that killed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan ( TTP) number two Waliur Rehman as he slept in Chashma village near Miranshah in North Waziristan, was just another drone strike. Rehman, who belonged to the Manzai clan of the Mehsuds, was head of the organisation's South Waziristan chapter, and was a high value target with a USD 5 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Apart from masterminding a number of suicide attacks inside Pakistan, Wali was also wanted in connection with attacks on U.S. and NATO personnel. The most notorious of these was the attack on the CIA base in Khost on December 30, 2009, when, seven counter-terrorism agents and security contractors were killed.

However, bit by bit, and by scratching the surface, it is apparent that this wasn't an ordinary drone strike.

What was notable initially was that this was the first drone strike since the May 11 general elections and the first after President Obama's recent policy speech on drone attacks. In that speech, Obama said he had approved new guidelines that drone strikes could continue against high-value Al Qaeda targets and against forces that were massing to support attacks on coalition forces, till at least 2014.

The cat was let out of the bag by White House spokesman Jay Carney who, while being non-committal on Wali's death, said it was worth noting that his demise would deprive the TTP of its second-in-command and chief military strategist. What he left unsaid, of course, was that this was a huge 'gift' to the embattled Pakistan Army who were unable to target Wali themselves.

In turn, the Pakistan Foreign Office expressed 'concern' over the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. While it stuck to its official position that drone strikes violated the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law, it did not 'protest' or term it 'unacceptable', as in the past. There was no written demarche. Clearly, the U.S. choice of targeting the TTP's number two could not but have pleased the Foreign Office, territorial sovereignty notwithstanding.

The Foreign Office was clearly fronting for the Pakistan Army by only expressing 'concern'. This was hardly surprising, given General Kayani's May 1, 2013, statement that militants could return to the national fold once they unconditionally submitted to the state, its constitution and the rule of law, and that the fight against this enemy of the state constituted Pakistan's war.

For the U.S., the 'gift' of taking out TTP's number two was clearly meant to soften the Pakistan Army to allow the unhindered withdrawal of U.S. containers through Pakistan. It is significant that the strike was sandwiched between the visits of NATO Military Committee Chairman General Knud Bartels to Pakistan on May 28 and that of the new United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador James Dobbins. Both were meeting General Kayani to discuss withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan and the post-2014 Pakistan-NATO relationship.

But what of the political leadership?

Incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had expressed himself clearly in favour of talks with the TTP. As a result, both the Maulanas of their respective factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) were gearing themselves up to play a mediating role. In this, he was out of sync with Kayani.

And here is the rub.

Waliur Rehman was no ordinary commander. He had a political background due to his past association with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam- Fazlur (JUI-F) before he took up arms. It is believed that Wali was considered a 'moderate' commander in the TTP compared to some of his hardline colleagues, including its leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Pakistan media has quoted a Mehsud tribal elder Malik Mahsud Ahmad stating that Wali was personally not in favour of suicide attacks in Pakistan and that he supported peace talks between the government and the Taliban.

The JUI-F and its tribal jirga would have contacted him to prepare the ground for peace talks. He would thus have been a useful interlocutor. His removal from the scene has not only created a setback to the peace efforts but made the TTP withdraw their offer of peace talks on May 30. They have vowed to avenge Wali's death, saying they held the Pakistani government responsible for the attack.

Hence, his killing has stymied peace talks even before they began.

What's even more interesting is, that late last year, reports had surfaced about Wali replacing Hakimullah as TTP supremo. This was denied and later Wali and Hakimullah had jointly appeared in a videotape on December 28, 2012 to refute the longstanding rumors of a split among the TTP leadership.

Yet, reports persisted about differences between the two over negotiations with the Pakistan government.

Wali's removal from the scene would strengthen Hakimullah's position allowing him to continue his hardline posture towards negotiations.

Peace talks apart, on the drone strikes themselves, Nawaz had referred to them as a "challenge" to Pakistan's sovereignty and said Washington must take Pakistani concerns seriously.

Likewise, his bete noire, PTI Chairman Imran Khan, had also vowed to put an end to the U.S. drone attacks if voted into power. Post the May 29 strike, Imran Khan has demanded that after assuming office, Nawaz's first decision should be to either stop or shoot down drones executing assaults within Pakistani territory.

Nawaz Sharif now faces a huge dilemma. With the TTP's rejection of the peace talks, his policy is in shambles even before he had a chance to implement it. He also needs American support to revive Pakistan's economy. Yet, what does he do about the hyped-up propaganda on drone strikes ?

In one blow or rather drone strike, the U.S. has endeared itself to the Pakistan Army to secure its withdrawal from Afghanistan and allowed it to again signal to the incoming Nawaz Sharif to heel as far as the TTP and other issues of defence policy are concerned.

Earlier, General Kayani had met Sharif and drawn the red lines on the outreach to India.

Has Nawaz Sharif got the message?

The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Salim Haq. (ANI)

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