With the almost certain death of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a leading American South Asian expert on Saturday said Islamabad can now no longer oppose the use of drones by the United States.
"The elimination of Mehsud would make it difficult for Pakistanis to argue that the drones are not improving security in their own country, given that he was reportedly responsible for dozens of suicide bombings over the last 18 months that have killed several hundred Pakistani civilians and security personnel as well as the wife of current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and political icon Benazir Bhutto," said Lisa Curtis.
A senior research fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Centre at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, Curtis is frequently invited by the Congressional committees to testify on various south Asian issues.
"Mehsud's death could also change the debate about the use of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal border areas, thereby helping to quell public anger over the US-Pakistan counterterrorism partnership," she said.
In the past, Pakistani leaders have publicly denounced US missile attacks in the tribal areas as counterproductive.
Curtis said US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal border areas have been effective in disrupting al-Qaeda's activities and its ability to plan and train for attacks in Afghanistan and across the globe. Senior US intelligence officials acknowledge that the campaign of sustained drone attacks in Pakistan, which began about a year ago, have led to greater success against al-Qaeda and its affiliates than any other tactic employed since 9/11.
However, drone attacks alone will not degrade the terrorist threat emanating from this region over the long term, she noted, adding that militant leaders can always be replaced. Achieving long-term gains against the terrorist threat in Pakistan will require a comprehensive military action by Pakistani security forces to establish government authority in the region; joint US-Pakistan efforts to provide economic development and job opportunities; and the institution of Pakistani political reforms that seek to incorporate the semi-autonomous border regions into the Pakistani nation-state.
Curtis said Mehsud's death would also be a fillip for international counter-terrorism efforts. "Mehsud is suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain," she said.
"There is no public record of his direct involvement in plots against the US homeland, but he threatened to launch an attack in Washington last April. Mehsud's forces also cooperate closely with the al-Qaeda leadership and provide protection for al-Qaeda bases and training camps in South Waziristan. He also pledged his allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar last February," Curtis said.