If the leader of the Pakistani Taliban really was killed by a U.S. drone strike today, it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of Tehrik-i-Taliban — known as the TTP or the Pakistani Taliban — has been erroneously reported killed several times in the past, but this time it looks legitimate. Reuters and others are reporting that multiple security officials have confirmed his death along with four other militants, including two top lieutenants, in a strike on a vehicle in North Waziristan, a lawless region in northwestern Pakistan.
Mehsud took over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban in 2009, after his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud (no relation) was killed by a U.S. drone strike. His group is responsible for numerous bombings across Pakistan that have killed thousands of civilians over the past decade, as well as bloody battles that have claimed thousands of troops.
He's also on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list for his alleged role in planning a failed car bombing in Times Square in 2010. The CIA had him on its Counterterrorism Center's most wanted list, too, for allegedly masterminding a December 2009 suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans, a shocking breach that was memorably reenacted in the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty. Mehsud appeared in a video beside the Jordanian double agent who infiltrated the base — ostensibly to brief the CIA on his findings — and blew himself up.
The drone strike comes a week after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif begged President Obama to end such strikes altogether. Pakistan's foreign ministry condemned today's attack, saying, "These strikes are a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is an across the board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end."
But there's another reason why the strike's timing is awkward: Pakistan's government was just beginning peace talks with Mehsud's group. Sharif's party was elected to government earlier this year on an explicit pledge to start negotiations. In a rare interview with the BBC last month, Mehsud said he was open to peace talks. And just yesterday, Sharif said those talks had begun.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said today that the drone strike was an attempt to "sabotage" Pakistan's peace talks with the Taliban. Opposition leader Imran Khan, the former cricket star, said the same. He is calling for Pakistan to retaliate by closing off transit routes that the U.S. has been using to supply troops in Afghanistan. "Whenever initiative of peace talks are taken in the country, U.S. drone strikes sabotage them," Khan said.
Still, others in Pakistan welcomed news of Mehsud's fiery end. Unlike other Islamic militant groups in Pakistan, which are often used as proxies by the Pakistani army to conduct attacks in Afghanistan and India, Tehrik-i-Taliban has waged an on-again, off-again insurgency against the Pakistani state, and counts Pakistanis as its principal victims. Indeed, if Mehsud's death leads to disarray in Tehrik-i-Taliban's ranks, Sharif could privately be thanking the U.S. for taking care of a particularly nasty problem in his own backyard.
However, if Tehrik-i-Taliban retaliates with attacks on Pakistani cities, and emerges from this setback stronger than ever, Sharif may be wishing the U.S. had given peace a chance.