Drone Strikes and the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship

The death of Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone attack on November 1 is a dramatic reminder that US President Barack Obama remains determined to use drones to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan despite all the criticism his policy has generated. It works.

The reaction inside Pakistan is a revealing insight into the struggle under way in the country between those who want to fight terror and those who want to appease it. The US’s already dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan has taken another hit as well.

According to one count, the US has used the drones in 378 lethal strikes since 2004. Obama has ordered 327 of them in the four and half years he has been in the Oval Office. According to Pakistan’s Defence Ministry, these have killed 2,160 terrorists and only 67 civilians. These have been remarkably effective in putting al-Qaeda in Pakistan on the defensive.

The Wanted Man

Mehsud worked closely with al-Qaeda in December 2009 to use a Jordanian al-Qaeda triple agent, Humam Khalil al Balawi, to get into a CIA forward operating base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Balawi blew himself up, killing seven CIA officers, two women and five men, as well as a Jordanian intelligence officer. It was one of the worst days in the agency’s history. Mehsud appeared sitting with Balawi in a martyrdom video released by the Taliban after the attack.

Mehsud was also involved in a plot to attack Time Square in New York City in May 2010 using a car bomb. A Pakistani American, Faysal Shahzad, was trained by Mehsud and al-Qaeda to build the bomb. Another video was released with Mehsud and Shahzad.

Fortunately, an alert hotdog vendor, a Muslim, spotted the vehicle emitting smoke and alerted the NYPD before it exploded. The NYPD later told me that had it gone off as planned, the results would have been catastrophic.

But most of Mehsud’s victims in his violent life were not Americans; by far the majority were his fellow Pakistanis. The Pakistan Taliban has murdered thousands of innocent Pakistanis in the last decade. It has fought a bitter and dangerous war against the Pakistani state and army. Its terror has helped to turn Karachi into a lawless mega city. It tried to murder young Malala Yousafzai and has warned it will kill her if she ever returns to Pakistan. Dozens of other young Pakistani children have been murdered by Mehsud’s followers.

His organisation has been hurt by his death but it will not be destroyed by the strike. At best his death will foster infighting within the already fractured group but a new leader will emerge and seek revenge for Mehsud’s death. Americans in Pakistan need to be on the alert for retribution. So too should Pakistanis.

The attack is very embarrassing for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Last month in Washington, he asked Obama to halt the drone attacks. Sharif has sought to open peace talks with the Taliban. Few expected the peace talks to really bring peace to Pakistan, but now those who wanted to appease the Taliban can blame the Americans for sabotaging any hope of a ceasefire.

But there are also many in Pakistan who know that the Taliban are a deadly threat to the survival of a country where a fragile democracy is struggling to build a stable and prosperous society after years of military dictatorship. It was the Pakistani army and intelligence services that created the jihadist Frankenstein’s monster that now torments the country. Zia-ul-Haq is the real grandfather of the Pakistani Taliban because he nurtured the culture of jihadism.


The frequency of lethal drone missions has dropped significantly in the last two years as Obama had tried to calibrate the effectiveness of counter-terror operations against the backlash they create in Pakistan. Even Malala asked him to stop them. But he also knows that they are his only means to disrupt al-Qaeda and Taliban plots to attack American interests from bases inside Pakistan. He knows that he cannot depend on the Pakistani state to curb al-Qaeda.

Next year American and other NATO combat forces will leave Afghanistan. Forward operating bases like the one Balawi blew up will be closed. Whether drone operations will continue past 2014 is an open question today, dependent on whether Kabul and Washington can arrange a bilateral security agreement.

If they can’t and the drones are gone, al-Qaeda will regenerate rapidly in Pakistan. Its allies like the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba will help it to rebuild. The ISI will either turn a blind eye or, worse, a helping hand. Americans, Pakistanis and Indians will all be at a greater risk.