The apparent elimination of Tehrik-e-Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud two weeks ago in a Predator strike is, on balance, very good news.
Mehsud was a villain, murderer and reportedly the mastermind of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination just after her return home as well as responsible for the killing of 1500 or more fellow citizens in a reign of terror that lasted far too long. Whether or not Mehsud’s demise will provoke a bloodbath in determining a successor, eliminating a major Pakistani Taliban leader will have political and psychological impact and distract the attention of the insurgents for time away from staging major attacks against the government and public to achieve.
The strategy in these Predator strikes is one of decapitation—if you cut off enough heads, the multi-headed hydra will die. The risks are obvious. Kill one and another may be eager to take his place. Kill any and the rest will accuse you of murdering innocent civilians irrespective of the facts. And continue the raids and alienate the Pakistani public who see these attacks as directed against their sovereignty and against their fellow citizens, Taliban or not.
That said, the profoundly and inherently difficult and even intractable problems of dealing with the Taliban and other insurgents on and along both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border form the heart of the dilemma and the urgency in bringing some measure of peace and stability to the region. The history—from Alexander the Great to creating and supporting the Mujahedeen in running out the Soviets—is well known. Yesterday’s allies become today’s enemies. And, from the Pakistani perspective, fearful of yet another American withdrawal from the region, ambivalence in dealing with the Afghan Taliban who form an insurance policy should history repeat and Washington retract its commitments, is a reality and possible immovable obstacle to progress.
What should be done? First, the strategy of decapitation can work—if. And the “if” is a big one. Second, assuming the “if” can be addressed operationally and strategically, implementing that strategy will require large quid pro quos on the part of the United States for Pakistan.
In the mid 1990’s, I was part of a group of former military and civilian defense officials that created what became known as the doctrine of “shock and awe.” The aim of “shock and awe” was to affect, influence and control the will and perception of the adversary through a variety of means including the use of force to achieve particular outcomes. In other words, one started with the desired outcome and worked backwards. Unfortunately, in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the notion of shock and awe was used in precisely the opposite way.
The objective was a spectacular defeat of the Iraqi army and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein rather than the establishment of a pluralistic state under the rule of law. Militarily, the operation was hugely successful and perhaps the most lopsided victory in the annals of war. Politically, strategically and economically, the war was, to use the title of an important book on the operation, a fiasco.
Fast forward to Pakistan: a strategy of shock and awe to eliminate the key leadership of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban is feasible provided accurate and timely targeting intelligence is available. Knowing that the certainty or near certainty of being hit by Predator, Taliban insurgents surely will be open to some form of negotiation as these insurgents are not al Qaeda and all do not hold similar views about martyrdom. But success will require complete support from the Pakistan side something that has not been fully forthcoming.
To achieve that support, the U.S. needs to affect and influence—not control—perceptions of the Pakistani public and elite. Symbolism is as important as action. Here, if we are serious, several quids are essential. First, the U.S. has imposed large tariffs on the import of textiles from Pakistan, higher than for any other country. While Congress has been inflexible in reducing those tariffs, there could not be a more significant and symbolic step than to cut them.
Second, while the U.S. has poured many hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq and now Afghanistan, it has been miserly in its support to Pakistan with a population nearly three times larger than the total of the two other states.
Third, and given the $20 billion economic package signed with India, now is the time to put Indo-Pakistan relations on a truly peaceful track.
But are we serious? If we are, the above will indeed be a powerful and positive display of shock and awe that will turn the tide in Pakistan and by extension in Afghanistan. If not, the outcome will not be happy one.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. Ullman was co-chairman of the group that invented shock and awe. This essay was previously published in the Emerging Threats analysis section of UPI.