US drone injured Sharif's policy of talks with Taliban

Talibanisation is a grave threat to the soul of a democratic and progressive Pakistan, and the war on extremism is a war for the country's soul.

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The first US drone strike in Pakistan after the recent elections did more than just kill Waliur Rehman, the second top man of the Pakistani Taliban. The automated execution also sabotaged the latest version of a peace process between the militants and the Pakistani government.

After the killing of its key commander in the May 29 explosion, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) withdrew its pending offer of peace talks with the government. The outlawed TTP said that it was holding Pakistan's government and military establishment responsible for the attack, and vowed to avenge Rehman's death.

Considering the TTP's previous manipulation of the "peace talk" process, this result may in the long run serve the group's opponents very well.

In direct terms, too, the killing came as a big blow to the TTP, because Rehman was the real brain behind its operational capacity.

As the TTP's prime commander in the Mehsud area, he was poised to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as leader of the TTP and had emerged as the group's primary military strategist; many members of the group had grown wary of Mr Mehsud's brutality.

The death of Rehman brings Khan Saeed to prominence in the TTP. Mr Saeed, 38, was involved in planning a 2011 attack on a Pakistani navy base and was involved in a jail break last year in the northwestern town of Bannu; 400 militants escaped.

Rehman had been amenable to talks with the government. The drone killed him on the same day that members of the provincial assembly in the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province were taking their oaths of office.

This was the first drone strike in Pakistan since the May 11 general elections that brought Nawaf Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) to power.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, meanwhile, the same elections brought in a new provincial government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led nationally by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan.

The May 29 strike was a clear message to the newly elected Pakistani government that the US will continue its drone war in the country's northwestern tribal region, the stronghold of Islamist militants.

In fact the US, as noted above, actually killed two birds with one drone: it eliminated a key Taliban commander and also stopped the government-TTP dialogue process, at least temporarily.

Indeed, not only is there no immediate prospect of talks, but more suicide attacks and other bloodshed now seem likely.

That does not suit the agenda of Mr Sharif, who was sworn in as Pakistan's prime minister on June 5, entering the office for the third time, after about 14 years.

He strongly believes that holding talks with the Pakistani Taliban is the only effective way to tackle the extremism and terrorism confronting the country.

In February, the TTP declared that it would negotiate if Mr Sharif, as well as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the Jamaat-i-Islami chief Syed Munawwar Hasan, agreed to act as guarantors for the talks.

Before the drone attack, Mr Sharif and Maulana Rehman had reportedly worked out a mechanism for negotiating with the Taliban through a grand peace jirga (tribal gathering).

Mr Sharif, who has spoken of the whole US drone campaign as a challenge to Pakistani sovereignty, vehemently condemned the May 29 incident.

But there is also an argument to the contrary, that the US drone weapon is essential in the country's lawless border areas which have become a safe haven for militants. (Last month the US president, Barack Obama, defended his covert drone war as legal but warned that undisciplined use of the tactic would invite abuses of power.)

Pakistan is currently ruled by right-wing political parties that have long supported dialogue with the extremists and opposed the US drone strikes. Both Mr Sharif and Mr Khan strongly oppose any full-fledged military operation against Taliban militant outfits in North Waziristan.

But the new government will have to convince Washington to stop the drone strikes before it can convince the Taliban to resolve the problem at the negotiating table. And getting agreement, from the US or, later, from the Taliban, will be a hard nut to crack.

The US will not abandon its weapon of choice easily, or at all. Increasing tension between Islamabad and Washington over this issue can already be plainly foreseen.

Further, it is still not clear if Pakistan's political leadership and military establishment are on the same page on the issue of dealing with the Taliban.

Last month, army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani declared the war on terror to be the country's own war.

He has a point: over 5,000 security personnel and 45,000 civilians have so far died in this war that seems to have no end. Besides human losses, the economic cost is incalculable.

The Taliban have repeatedly used dialogue to achieve short-term objectives, such as the freedom of jailed militants, while never showing any flexibility about its ideological goals. The ultimate fact is that the Taliban have been utterly unreliable in adhering to its peace agreements.

By now it should be very clear that Talibanisation is a grave threat to the soul of a democratic and progressive Pakistan, and the war on extremism is a war for the country's soul.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( is a development analyst in Pakistan