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Behind the peace talks: the secret war on the Taliban

AT least three missiles rained down into the compound.

Clockwise from top left, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud; a US drone plane at a base in Iraq; news of the death on the streets of Peshawar; and supporters burn the US flag in Karachi in protest at the drone strike
Clockwise from top left, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud; a US drone plane at a base in Iraq; news of the death on the streets of Peshawar; and supporters burn the US flag in Karachi in protest at the drone strike

Hakimullah Mehsud was almost at the front door of the house that had become his latest temporary hideout when the lethal payload fired from the pilotless US drone detonated around him.

Among the most wanted on the CIA's list of high profile targets, men like him never stay too long in the one place. A known hothead, he was arrogant, prone to aggressive outbursts and is said to have gunned down even his fellow Taliban who had opposed or disobeyed him.

Under his watch as leader of Pakistan's Tehrik-i-Taliban, suicide bombers caused havoc across the country, schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and seven American CIA officers and contractors were blown to pieces at an outpost in Afghanistan.

Mehsud's part in this litany of horrors finished on Friday in its own violent endgame, when he, along with his driver and bodyguard, were among a total of five Taliban killed by the US drone strike. Precise details of the strike remain sketchy but according to some eyewitness accounts, Mehsud's body was "damaged but recognisable" after the attack.

Grisly as this detail might seem, it is significant given that we have been here before with reports of Mehsud's death. As the headline to an article in the influential US based magazine Foreign Policy wryly summed it up: "Taliban Leader Killed - for the Fifth Time". The writer rightly pointing out that "Mehsud has made a career of disproving reports of his demise".

On at least four separate occasions between 2009 and 2012 counter-terrorism officials thought they had put an end to this notorious and brutal jihadist, only to be proven wrong.

This time, however, members of Mehsud's family, the Tehrik-i-Taliban and Pakistani security officials have confirmed his demise, along with that of a number of Mehsud's senior aides with him at the time of the strike in North Waziristan.

"He was targeted as he was returning to his home from a nearby mosque where he had been holding discussions with his comrades," said a Pakistani military officer based in a city close to the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, home to many Islamist terrorist groups. "He was right at his front door and at least three missiles were fired," added the officer.

A senior US intelligence official also told the Associated Press that Washington received positive confirmation on Friday morning that Mehsud had been killed.

If, as the evidence suggests, we have seen the last of Hakimullah Mehsud, what does the timing of his targeting tell us about US counterterrorism efforts against the Taliban and where does it leave Washington's relations with Islamabad? Worth considering too is what the Pakistan Taliban's reaction might be and the subsequent impact on their operational capacity?

To take the timing question first, Mehsud's death comes a few days after Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, called for an end to the drone strikes in a meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington.

Earlier this month Sharif reportedly remarked that talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban had begun, though the militant group's spokesman denied any such development.

Mehsud may have been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent lives through the terror strikes he masterminded, but an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis view US drone strikes as a violation of their country's sovereignty. For his part Mehsud had said recently that he was ready for "serious talks" with the government in Islamabad.

"We believe in serious talks but the government has taken no steps to approach us. The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions," Mehsud was quoted as saying. "The proper way to do it is if the government appoints a formal team, and they sit with us, and we discuss our respective positions."

Mehsud added that he would guarantee the safety of government negotiators. According to some reports that process was already underway and negotiators en-route to the tribal areas when the Taliban leader was killed on Friday. If that was indeed the case then it may be that Washington and its intelligence assets were laying down a marker making clear that talking to terrorists like Mehsud was not an option.

While the US has said it supports talks with the Afghan Taliban, fighters responsible for attacks on US and other Nato troops inside Afghanistan, it is said to object to Prime Minister Sharif's proposal of talking to the Pakistan Taliban.

Certainly across Pakistan the Taliban leader's death has already sparked controversy, with many commentators and politicians suggesting that the killing has sabotaged efforts to negotiate with the jihadist rebels. For its part the Pakistan government is walking something of a political tightrope in its handing of the Taliban threat. On the one hand it cannot afford to be at odds with the vast majority of its citizens who oppose US drone strikes, but at the same time it is all too aware that the jihadists pose a serious threat to the stability of the country.

Yesterday, the Islamabad officials were only too happy to vent their anger in public, summoning the US ambassador to protest and denouncing Mehsud's killing as a bid to derail planned peace talks.

"The murder of Hakimullah is the murder of all efforts at peace," said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar. "Americans said they support our efforts at peace. Is this support?"

Some officials even went as far as demanding a retaliatory blocking of Nato supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan. A major one passes through Pakistan's tribal areas at the Khyber Pass.

Shah Farman, a spokesman for the government of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said provincial lawmakers would pass a resolution tomorrow to cut the supply corridor. These routes have been crucial since the latest Afghan war began in 2001 and remain vital as the US and Western forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

For the moment then, relations between Washington and Islamabad are once again strained. What's more, it seems inconceivable that US political and intelligence chiefs would not have been aware of this potential fallout when they gave the go-ahead for the strike against Mehsud.

This brings us to the second question concerning Tehrik-i-Taliban's reaction and subsequent impact of Mehsud's demise on their operational capacity.

Yesterday, as Mehsud was secretly buried under cover of darkness by a few companions amid fears that his funeral might be attacked by US drones, Taliban spokesmen were in belligerent mood.

Residents of Miranshah, the capital of the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border where he was targeted, said Pakistani Taliban fighters were converging on the town and firing furiously at drones buzzing high in the sky.

"Every drop of Hakimullah's blood will turn into a suicide bomber," said Azam Tariq, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman.

"America and their friends shouldn't be happy because we will take revenge for our martyr's blood."

But amid all this bluster and rhetoric, residents in Miranshah said they were worried more by the prospect of a possible army offensive rather than Taliban reprisals. They expected the militants to launch attacks elsewhere in Pakistan.

"We feel the militants will show their reaction in major cities like they usually do," was how one resident summed up their fears.

While some intelligence analysts are divided in their views over the immediate impact of Mehsud's death on Tehrik-i- Taliban, there seems little doubt that it will weaken them in the short term at least.

Mehsud's killing comes only a few months after his deputy, Wali-ur-Rehman, was removed in a similar drone strike, and this turnover has put pressure on Tehrik-i-Taliban's inner circle.

Yesterday some reports claimed that its commanders had already replaced Mehsud with the movement's number two, Khan Said, who is also known as Sajna.

Said is believed to have masterminded an attack on a jail in northwest Pakistan that freed nearly 400 prisoners in 2012 and a big attack on a Pakistani naval base.

But some commanders were unhappy with the choice and wanted more talks, several militants said, indicating divisions within their ranks.

It is even possible that the group may split into factions that fight among themselves in the power vacuum Mehsud has left behind. As if this was not problem enough, the Islamists are also faced with a rapid need to fix lapses and weaknesses in operational security that allowed the death of their leader. With a $5 million US bounty on his head, Mehsud had been a target of the CIA for some time. What shift in their security procedure allowed US intelligence to finally catch up with him? Could it be that Tehrik-i-Taliban's leadership has been compromised or penetrated, and if so can we expect yet more effective US targeting of its chiefs?

Despite Pakistan's protestations over the US strike, some observers believe it could provide the Islamabad government with more leverage in its handling of the Taliban.

"If Islamabad were to attack the group now at its moment of weakness, it could contribute to an even stronger position for the Pakistani government whenever negotiations do begin," notes a report by the independent US based intelligence monitoring group, Stratfor.

Yesterday, Pakistan's security forces were placed on high alert and the country was bracing itself for the backlash to Mehsud's killing. The prospects of talks between Islamabad and Tehrik-i-Taliban have clearly been kicked into touch for now.

Some observers insist such talks, even if they had gone ahead, provided little chance of them achieving anything.

"The Taliban killed 40,000 people. What lunatic thought there would be peace talks," said Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Washington DC's Georgetown University. "The American taxpayer is again taking out Pakistan's terrorist garbage."

When the BBC journalist, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, obtained his exclusive interview with Hakimullah Mehsud a few weeks ago he told afterwards of how terrified he was that it took place in the open and that low flying drones circled overhead continuously.

"Don't be afraid, we all have to die one day," Mehsud reassured the reporter. That one day was last Friday, and the stage is set for a new round of violence as the secret war against the Taliban goes on.

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