The reported killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud earlier this month provided a gloss of success to the U.S. policy of drone attacks inside Pakistan. Unfortunately, it remains doubtful that such attacks will ever slow the Taliban insurgency, let alone defeat it. Less than a week after Mehsud’s apparent death, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taliban have grown more aggressive and more effective in southern Afghanistan. Although the theater commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has challenged the Journal’s characterization of his views, the report nonetheless portrayed a faltering war effort against an increasingly powerful adversary. In short, we remain very much in trouble in Afghanistan.
Two years of drone attacks on top al Qaida and Taliban leaders have had negligible impact on the organization or fighting capacity of the enemy; indeed, they could very well have contributed to the Taliban’s expansion of control over additional territory. This likely would be the case with or without the contributions of Mehsud, all of which makes it harder to believe U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke when he declares Mehsud’s death to be "a very big deal."
The Pakistani public’s reaction to Mehsud’s death has been favorable, largely due to Mehsud’s sponsorship of suicide bombings inside Pakistan. But the lethal deployment of American drones continues to be resented by Pakistanis and officially condemned by their government as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Thus, the attacks offer short-term tactical victories at the price of long-term Pakistani support for the war effort. Ultimately, they make the population of western Pakistan more receptive to the Taliban than they would otherwise be.
Public sentiment aside, it is questionable whether eliminating individual leaders has a decisive impact on insurgencies. Pakistan’s own efforts to quell unrest in its Baluchistan province by eliminating prominent Baluchi leaders do not inspire confidence. Having failed to bring the province under control with such tactics, Pakistan has lately resorted to accusing India of stirring up the Baluchi insurgency.
Killing individual leaders and temporarily disrupting their organizations has little effect on the social bases from which such movements draw power. Pashtun resistance to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, which is the animating spirit of the Taliban, is as deeply rooted as the Baluchi quest for greater autonomy. Our tendency to personalize the enemy, identifying a cause with particular leaders, encourages us to conclude that their deaths are pivotal events. But the causes of insurgency are usually deeper, and more resistant to attempts to uproot them by force.
Consequently, even if true, the reports that Mehsud’s death has prompted infighting among different Taliban factions will provide, at most, a temporary pause in Taliban efforts.
Even the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, which everyone acknowledges was crucial to improving security and halting Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, has not ensured an end to Sunni resistance because their political grievances remain unaddressed. Indeed, the dangers of renewed civil war in Iraq remain quite real. Unlike Sunnis in Iraq, who sought compromise, the Pashtuns of western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan have shown few signs that they are willing to turn against the Taliban and embrace a deal.
To diminish support for the Taliban, or to get them to cease hostilities, there eventually must be greater accommodation of the aggrieved population’s interests. If those grievances cannot be accommodated, it will not matter how many Mehsuds our forces assassinate. At present, we are looking at a future in which allied governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be under siege indefinitely and in which our mission in Afghanistan will remain similarly open-ended. Periodic drone attacks on militants will not resolve the underlying political conflicts that roil the region. Our mission in Afghanistan needs well-defined, achievable objectives. Thus far, the Obama administration has not provided them. There will be no reward in Afghanistan for "staying the course."