IN many ways, it is a replay of the fallout of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The shrillest, loudest voices that have been heard since Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike on Friday are those slamming the US for apparently fatally sabotaging dialogue with the TTP and those casting Mehsud as an honourable, if misunderstood, militant leader who really only wanted peace. Perhaps in a better, more rational world, the focus here would be on the monstrous legacy of Mehsud and a hardnosed assessment of whether his killing will in fact make it easier or more difficult to deal with the TTP, whether militarily or through dialogue. Unhappily, rational discourse has seemingly been abandoned nationally when it comes to talking about the TTP and the US.
Still, the furious criticism of the US and near-veneration of Mehsud does not mean there is not much that is troubling about Friday’s strike. The bottom line is that Pakistan has to deal with the internal security threat posed by the TTP. To achieve that, the political leadership has decided that dialogue must be the first option. However remote the possibility of talks succeeding may be, that is a decision the political leadership of the country has collectively taken and must therefore be respected and adhered to, even if not fully agreed with. From the American perspective too, it ought to have made sense to let the dialogue phase play out with minimal interference. For now, if the dialogue option does collapse, the blame can easily be pinned on the already disliked US, leaving opponents of the military option against the TTP as vocal and energetic as ever – and leaving the Pakistani state no closer to ending the principal internal security threat. How does it help overall American interests to fuel conspiracy theories in Pakistan, shift the focus from the threat the TTP poses, and leave the Pakistani state and society fumbling around as confusedly as ever? It does not. And yet an American drone killed Hakeemullah Mehsud on Friday, suggesting either myopia or a fierceness in American policy towards Pakistan that is deeply unsettling.
Of course, in the grossly awkward dance that has been the Pakistan-US security relationship for many years now, what the Americans can do, Pakistani officials can do one better and vice versa. The Sharif government is proving as adept at the self-defeating approach of the Musharraf era and the last PPP government: avoid speaking plainly about the militant threat and pretend the US understands the Pakistani position until facts on the ground manifest themselves and trigger angry Pakistani denunciations of the US. It’s both tragic and scary: Pakistan is yet to find a leadership that speaks plainly and honestly and makes the necessary hard choices.