The American drone strike that killed the Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud last week has apparently caused outrage in Islamabad and threatens a breach in relations between the two countries. It is claimed that this latest exercise of Washington’s military muscle has jeopardised a tentative peace process that Pakistan’s leaders were trying to put in place. But is this really the case? As the wars of Afghanistan and Pakistan begin to fade away, a dangerous delusion is taking their place: that a diplomatic solution acceptable both to the West and the Islamists is achievable.
Mehsud, we should remember, was a brutal and effective guerrilla dedicated to imposing strict Islamic law in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the destruction of Western influence across the region. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands in his own country, including the lorry bomb that destroyed the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in 2008.
Yet the politicians in Pakistan have reacted with shrill indignation, treating the demise of the 34-year-old as a national humiliation and the removal of a potential peacemaker in a pivotal position to change the course of the conflict. Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, who just last week claimed to have instituted a dialogue with the Taliban, has now ordered a full review of relations with Washington. Imran Khan, the cricketer turned anti-American politician, has demanded a crippling embargo on shipments to Nato troops in Afghanistan from Pakistani ports.
Is any of this serious or can President Barack Obama take Islamabad’s umbrage with the customary pinch of salt? We have been here before, after all. In the wake of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, who was hiding for years near Islamabad, a similar wave of outrage was manufactured to cover up Pakistan’s inadequacies.
From the White House point of view, Mehsud was not a peacemaker: first and foremost he was the warlord who plotted the Times Square bomb attacks and the suicide blast that killed seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan in 2009.
Indeed, this regular scalping of the Taliban’s top leadership has greatly assisted the American leader move towards his goal of ending the second of the two big wars he inherited from George W Bush. But there is no doubt that despite the deadly toll on the Taliban, the political cost of the drone strikes is undoubtedly rising. As combat forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan the pursuit of peace talks has come to dominate the West’s policy in the region. As a result it is getting harder to quash suggestions that the campaign of assassinations threatens to upend the delicate build-up to a peace process with the Taliban. Just last week David Cameron convened a summit between Mr Sharif and the Afghan president Hamid Karzai to push efforts to draw the Taliban to the negotiating table. It yielded a breakthrough when Islamabad agreed to allow a meeting between the Afghans and Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader, who is under house arrest in Pakistan.
Yet even as that deal was being sealed, a desert drone operator based somewhere in Nevada was homing in on Mehsud’s movements in Waziristan. Mr Karzai and Mr Sharif can with some justification complain that their Western allies are sending contradictory signals. Do they want to talk to the Taliban or not?
Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw was better than war-war, but this celebrated injunction is often misunderstood, as President Obama is well aware. There is no simple choice between talking and fighting. In fact no one really knows if the Taliban are ready to talk to their enemies, either in South Asia or in the West.
Last week, a senior US diplomat said there was almost no chance of a Northern Ireland-style peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban getting under way by next year. Even before the attack on Mehsud, the chances of a parallel peace initiative between Pakistan and the Taliban were rated as unlikely.
While the clock is ticking on the war in Afghanistan, America’s enduring challenge in South Asia is coming into sharper focus. Taliban commanders like Osama bin Laden’s remaining acolytes in the al-Qaeda high command are an enemy Washington cannot ignore while its local allies engage in diplomatic manoeuvres. In any case, President Obama has already responded to Pakistani anger by sharply curtailing the use of drones. There have been 24 strikes on Waziristan so far in 2013, a dramatic decline since the high point of the campaign in 2010, when 117 were recorded.
But the precision of the drone as a weapon of war makes it too precious to abandon. Harold Koh, a former State Department legal advisor and one of the US leader’s inner circle, discussed the pitfalls facing America earlier this year in a speech at Oxford University. Mr Koh warned of the “forever war” in which the US constantly fixed its sights on groups that were “part of” or “associated with” al-Qaeda in open-ended conflict.
Not long after Mr Koh’s remarks, President Obama set out clear new rules for targeting terrorists abroad which make uncomfortable reading for states like Pakistan. He said drone strikes must take place when the target cannot be captured and where the local authorities cannot act independently against the terrorist. In other words, Islamabad cannot demand an end to drone strikes while it continues to grapple ineffectually with the wider threat posed by the Taliban.
Damien McElroy is the Foreign Affairs Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.