Pakistan after Baitullah; a new political hurdle

August 9, 2009

The obvious question to ask about the apparent death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack (apart from the question of proving his death) is what, or who, is next? Does the Pakistan Army still go into South Waziristan to fight the Taliban, or does it consider it “mission accomplished”? And after apparently eliminating a militant leader who had focused on targetting Pakistan, will it now go after other militants whose main area of operation is Afghanistan?

As discussed in my last post, Pakistan’s military offensive in South Waziristan was framed in the context of a punitive mission against Mehsud based on Raj-era notions of retribution, and was therefore quite different from its operation in Swat, which aimed to re-occupy territory seized by the Taliban and restore the writ of the state.  So if Mehsud is indeed dead, the Pakistan Army may already have met its objective.

It would probably need new orders to do more – and however much analysts argue that the Pakistani military still calls the shots on foreign and security policy – Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has been something of a stickler in insisting that he takes his orders from the civilian government.

So even on this narrow technical definition, the decision about what happens next will be political rather than military – albeit a decision in which the army has a powerful say.

But at a much broader level, the decision will define Pakistan’s approach to Islamist militants.

According to the New York Times, the death of Mehsud is likely to mean that Islamabad will come under even greater U.S. pressure to go after militants who fight the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. These include the Afghan Taliban, believed by Washington to be based in Quetta in Baluchistan, and the Haqqani network founded by Afghan warlord Jalauddin Haqqani, based in North Waziristan.

And that could be much trickier. The Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network were used by Pakistan in the past to control Afghanistan and many analysts think it is reluctant to turn against them now as long as it believes it can use them to counter India’s growing influence there.

American journalist Nicholas Schmidle argues in Slate that Mehsud was an easier target since he had alienated both the United States and Pakistan.

“Now the hard part begins,” he writes. “Since the CIA has demonstrated its ability to pinpoint “high-level targets,” it will want to go after other top Taliban leaders in Pakistan, such as Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan and Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan. But Pakistan’s military and security establishment perceives both men, who focus their fighting in Afghanistan and not in Pakistan, as national security assets more than threats. And there’s no magic drone strike to fix that.”

And the hard part may take time. There are many, many other pieces of the jigsaw that have to be fitted in first. Inside Pakistan, the civilian government, the army and public opinion would all have to rally behind any decision to widen the scope of the country’s fight against the Taliban. And beyond  Pakistan, the likely outcomes of the U.S. military offensive in Afghanistan to the west and the tortuous peace process with India to the east have yet to become clear.  Expect much uncertainty before the broader picture takes shape.

(File photos: Pakistani soldier on Afghan border; General Kayani with Prime Minister Gilani)

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