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Low Hanging Fruit

13/08/2009

Among the many tough choices that must be made about how to bring stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan the decision to target Baitullah Mehsud was low-hanging fruit. He was responsible for the deaths of countless Pakistanis and under his leadership the TTP threatened the stability of the state. Although his survival was a source of friction between Pakistan and the U.S., Baitullah was also a target both sides could agree was a threat. Killing him was a shared operational priority, worthy of an American breach of sovereignty by way of hellfire missile. One hopes that his death will be a confidence building measure in the Pakistan-U.S. partnership, but the two countries still have divergent strategic priorities and future targets are likely to prove harder to agree upon.

In the event he is really dead (uncertainty still remains) his death will have an impact at an operational level on the TTP. But even this should not be overstated. In the short term his death will degrade the TTP’s unity, making it a less effective force in the short term. Early reports indicate a power struggle might be underway between Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, who are two of Baitullah’s would-be successors. At least one of those men, Waliur Rehman, has denied this. Either way the Pakistani ’s insurgency has always been marked by separateness and togetherness, though it has become more unified recently. On the whole disunity is probably a net plus, but even if the movement returns to a splintered state the actors involved are still a threat on both sides of the Durand line. This is not just a Mehsud family affair and is too complex for one man’s death to unravel it. Recall that Nek Mohammed’s death did not prove to be the Pakistani Taliban’s undoing, but instead paved the way for Baitullah’s emergence who also tangled with fellow commanders.

Competition could also drive additional attacks against Pakistani targets, though its not as if the TTP needs a whole lot more motivation to attack the state. Nonetheless, one of the bits of information I was struck by most when in Pakistan a few months ago was the fact that some militants were attempting to “outbid” one another in terms of the level of attacks they could deliver. As different actors compete for power – at the top and mid levels – attempts to outdo one another might increase violence against the Pakistani state in the short-term.

Of course, it is also possible that if a new leader emerges who can keep the TTP united that he could decide to ratchet back on attacks within Pakistan and refocus on the Afghan jihad. Baitullah’s death aside, the Pakistani Taliban have had an uneven year. They were a whole lot more popular on the home front when killing Coalition forces next door. With the Afghan jihad humming along, one wonders: will the TTP shift focus and, if so, how will the Pakistani state respond?

This operation may have bolstered the Pakistan-U.S. relationship and helped the latter improve its reputation as a team player. But it is highly questionable whether the quid pro quo will result in Pakistan passing along Mullah Omar’s coordinates. There are early rumblings that this could pave the way for cooperation against the Haqqani Network, but action there probably depends as much [or more] on the state of its relationship with Pakistan than on Pakistan’s relationship with U.S. In short, it remains to be seen whether there will be a strategic shift in Pakistan’s behavior vis-à-vis those actors who Washington considers enemies and Islamabad considers assets in Afghanistan. Hopefully this operation not only will disrupt TTP unity, but also help increase cooperation between the U.S and Pakistan. Confidence by both sides in their relationship is important since future decisions will not be so easy to agree upon.

Finally, at the risk of wading into the drone strike debate when I’m about to bump up against a self-imposed word limit: they may be degrading al-Qaeda’s capability to strike Western countries and making some militants uneasy, but they are not a solution for the problem in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. I’m not as orthodox on this as some and do see their value. Taking out targets like Baitullah Mehsud is a net plus even if it has to happen via hellfire missile. If serious infighting results from his death then this would be a prime example of how operational action that can produce strategic results. But the insurgency built strength over a long period of time. Defeating it could take even longer and won’t happen via remote-controlled aircraft alone.