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Questionable victory

The targeted killing of the Taliban chief in Pakistan has set back chances of peace

Many ordinary people in Pakistan are rubbing their eyes in disbelief, after Friday’s US drone missile attack killed the leader of the Pakistan Taliban a day before a government delegation was due to meet him. The assassination leaves the government of Nawaz Sharif looking foolish in the eyes of its own population. Even worse, given the anti-American temper of Pakistan these days, its probable complicity in US violations of its sovereignty has been paid bare.

No one outside the ranks of the Islamists and jihadists doubts that Hakimullah Mehsud was a repellent individual. Under his auspices, the Pakistan Taliban, the TPP, killed thousands of people in sectarian attacks as well as targeting the defiant and heroic schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai.

But Western policy makers should pause before rejoicing in the death of a despicable man. The question is not whether Mehsud had a redeeming side, but whether America’s drone missile s are making a dangerous situation on the Pakistan-Afghan border better or worse.

The odds are on the latter, which explains the furious reaction to Friday’s strike that has followed from politicians in Pakistan such as Imran Khan and the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Both charge the Americans with sabotaging the chances of peace talks between the Taliban and the government. Whether the CIA set out to derail the talks, or refused to let them upset its strike plans, the timing of Mehsud’s killing was unfortunate, to say the least. The prospect of a negotiated end to the Taliban’s reign of terror was not an idle fantasy on the part of the Islamabad government. Only two weeks ago, Mehsud himself told the BBC that he felt open to the idea.

Now that he is dead, negotiations are off the table. The CIA will congratulate itself on having knocked out a long-sought target; Mehsud was on the agency’s  most-wanted terrorist list for a 2009 bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA officers. But after a successor emerges, Mehsud will be forgotten. In the short term, the 30 or so groups loosely affiliated to the TPP will be off the leash, competing for the honour of exacting revenge on the Americans or their perceived stooges.

No wonder people in Pakistan are weary of the war that America is conducting on their soil against militant Islamists. The fact that President Sharif used his recent visit to Washington to urge Barack Obama to stop the drone strikes will only reinforce a feeling there that, in the context of the alliance with Washington, Pakistan’s own wishes count for little.

The Americans should listen to their ally on drone strikes, but are unlikely to. President Obama has indeed increased use of them. A war without borders, an end in sight, or much point to it, looks set to splutter on, while Pakistan has to pick up the pieces.