The killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone attack has set off depressingly familiar reactions that are telling about the state of play within Pakistan, and its relations with the United States. In a replay of what followed Osama bin Laden’s killing in 2011, the killing of Mehsud has set off more condemnation of the American violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity than an honest assessment of who he was and how he had brought the country to its knees. As the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Mehsud was the mastermind of scores of terrorist attacks that killed innocent Pakistanis by the hundreds in mosques, markets, hospitals; the TTP took on the Pakistan Army, ambushing, kidnapping and beheading soldiers, acts for which it readily took responsibility, so much so that in popular Pakistani narrative, it was even suspected of being a proxy group of India. It was behind the attempted killing of the teenager Malala Yusufzai for standing up for girls’ education. It killed anti-polio workers suspecting them to be American spies and holding the immunisation programme as a conspiracy against Islam. The TTP also played a dark role in the elections earlier this year with a bloody campaign targeting candidates of the “secular” Pakistan People’s Party and Awami National Party. Mehsud formed alliances with other militant groups across Pakistan, building a country-wide terror network. Yet, he is being hailed by a broad spectrum of Pakistani politicians as a Taliban leader who wanted to make peace with the government. Some have even described him as a martyr.
After a surge in terror attacks, the government — armed with a mandate from an all parties’ conference — had been trying to start a dialogue with the TTP, and views the killing as a setback to this process. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said the efforts would continue, and a senior cabinet minister has demanded a review of ties with the U.S. Considering the Taliban have only contempt for Pakistan’s Constitution and other aspects of the modern democratic nation state, the question has always been if this is a peace process or a surrender by the government. It is true that the war by drones has repeatedly violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. Even if the Pakistani military and civilian leadership are not complicit in it as the U.S. has repeatedly claimed, it is hard not to concede that Mehsud’s elimination must have unnerved the TTP, at least for now, and given the Sharif government an invaluable opportunity to forge a new, more visionary political consensus on how to deal with the terrorism, extremism and militancy eating at the country’s vitals. Unfortunately, all signs are that Pakistan will choose not to take it.