Peace Talks With Pakistan Taliban in Question After Drone Strike

Pakistan's government has issued a terse response to the attack and says it will review its rocky relationship with Washington, while the militant group moves swiftly to appoint a new leader

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Pakistan’s government has lashed out at the U.S. after a Nov. 1 drone reportedly killed the leader of the Pakistan Taliban hours before peace talks between the government and militant group were to get underway. At a Nov. 2 press conference, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan called the strike a direct attack on the peace process, and said Islamabad would be reviewing its rocky relationship with Washington.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Hakimullah Mehsud was killed by a drone at a compound in North Waziristan on Friday evening, according to Pakistan and militant sources. “The government of Pakistan does not see this strike as a strike on an individual, but on the peace process,” Nisar told reporters.

Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politico who heads the Tehrik-i-Insaf party (PTI), has also condemned the timing of the strike, saying the U.S. has been thwarting the peace process in Pakistan with the ongoing CIA secret drone campaign in the country. In retaliation, he has proposed to block NATO supplies to Afghanistan that run through the province where his party is in power.

Reaction to the death of the infamous militant chief has been mixed in Pakistan. While many are understandably relieved to see the head of a group that terrorizes the nation go, fears that the TTP will retaliate in urban areas in particular are widespread. And others, including the government and Taliban sympathizers, see Friday’s strike as yet another affront to Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The nation is also divided over whether the government should be talking to the militants at all. A key part of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s platform in May elections was initiating peace talks, but many question whether the now is time for the government to negotiate with the still violent group. “The Talibs are killing people every second day,” says Shaukat Qadir, a retired Brigadier of the Pakistan Army. “The TTP is looking for political space through violence. Should we give them that space? They should surrender.”

The timing of the strike puts Sharif’s government in a tight spot. It came days after the PM’s visit to the U.S., during which he called on President Obama to end the drone campaign in Pakistan — and during which there were fresh revelations of Pakistan’s past complicity with the CIA program. The government was quick to condemn the attack, issuing a statement the same day saying there is “an across the board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end.” The interior minister also rejected claims made by the Taliban and others that the  government was complicit in the strike.

The Taliban, for its part, is reportedly moving quickly — perhaps to mobilize for its next move. Pakistani dailies and some international outlets reported that a meeting of the TTP council on Saturday may have already appointed Khan Syed Mehsud, who goes by ‘Sajna,’ as its new leader. The TTP’s leader before Hakimullah, Baitullah Mehsud, was also killed in a drone strike in 2009. “Overall, the TTP has weakened over the last three or four years, but it still has a lot of capacity to engage in bombings,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst. “That is not effected by the change in leadership.”

Indeed, fears of a backlash are not unwarranted. A Taliban commander in North Waziristan, where the strike took place, told The New York Times that the group’s revenge would be unprecedented. “Every time that something like this happens, people try to anchor down,” says Shahan Mufti, a journalist and author. “Everybody prepares for the worst.”