Argument

A Bad Time to Kill a Bad Man?

Why the killing of the Pakistani Taliban's No. 1 might cause a lot more pain for Pakistan than the CIA counted on.

Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistan's most prolific killer, was eliminated on Nov. 1 in a CIA drone strike on his vehicle as it moved through the North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Since 2009, Mehsud had led the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the jihadist umbrella group that has waged war against the Pakistani state, seeking to not only punish Islamabad for its cooperation with the United States in the war on terror, but also impose its own radical version of shariah over Pakistan's 190 million people.

Mehsud's organization is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians, politicians, security personnel, and tribal leaders since its founding in 2007. And for that alone, it would be reasonable to assume that his targeted killing would be met with a near-universal positive reaction in Pakistan, despite the strong opposition in the country to U.S. drone attacks.

While many Pakistanis have welcomed the elimination of Mehsud -- whose sadistic excesses even rankled fellow militants such as his once-deputy Wali-ur-Rehman -- there has also been considerable condemnation of the drone strike. The opposition to Mehsud's killing largely rests on the timing of the U.S. attack as well as the authority of Washington to conduct strikes on Pakistani soil -- an issue that has acquired renewed salience with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's call for an end to drone attacks during his visit to Washington last month.

Many Pakistani politicians -- including from the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) -- claimed that the drone strike sabotaged the prospects of a peace deal with the TTP. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a senior figure in the party, claimed that a delegation of religious scholars were set to meet with representatives of Mehsud in exploratory peace talks. In a press conference on Nov. 2, Nisar asked why the United States had not targeted Mehsud before when he allegedly had crossed into Afghanistan on multiple occasions, and said that he found it curious that Mehsud had never come up in discussions with American officials during his government's first four months in office, but that the U.S. ambassador had raised the issue of targeting Mehsud all of a sudden in a recent meeting.

It would be a mistake to reflexively dismiss Nisar's protests as a manifestation of the perfidy or double-speak many associate with Pakistani officials, who have in the past publicly spoken out against drone attacks while supporting them privately. The killing of Mehsud has made the PML-N government, already under severe criticism for its handling of the economy and terrorism, look impotent. In recent weeks, it appears to have invested quite a bit of energy in arranging exploratory talks with the TTP. And on a number of occasions, it had suggested that Washington would give Islamabad space to engage the TTP in talks, including by being more restrained in its conducting of drone attacks.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has been conspicuously silent. No serving military official has spoken on the record about the killing of Mehsud and off-the-record quotes have been sparing in detail. But there is some indication that the Pakistani military may have condoned, if not actively supported, the drone strike.

Retired Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a former military spokesman with close ties to the current army chief, appeared on a major Pakistani talk show on Nov. 1 and spoke out in favor of the attack on Mehsud, providing a detailed account of the terrorist's crimes against the people of Pakistan. His appearance on television could be part of a military effort to tilt public opinion in favor of the strike without having to publicly endorse the controversial CIA drone strikes on Pakistani soil. And just days before the attack on Mehsud, the Pakistani Defense Ministry, whose day-to-day operations are run by a recently retired lieutenant general, issued an unbelievable report to parliament claiming that there were zero civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks in 2012. The report had the appearance of an attempt to sanitize the drone campaign just before a big hit with the tacit support of the Pakistani military.

The military has chafed at the prospect of peace talks with the TTP, and for much of this year the Pakistani army has, in fact, expressed its discomfort with the conciliatory, if not apologetic, approach of center-right and Islamist politicians toward the TTP. In May, the now-outgoing army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called on Pakistan's politicians and general public to support the fight against militants who, in his words, seek to impose their "distorted ideology" on Pakistan by force. In August, he had said that "bowing down" to militants is no solution to terrorism. And in September, after the TTP killed a major general and threatened to kill Kayani next, the army chief said that, though giving the dialogue process with militants a chance was "understandable," there should be no "misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms."

Indirectly rebuking pro-talks politicians, such as Imran Khan, who have claimed that military operations have failed to resolve the issue of terrorism, Kayani said that the army "has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists." And last month, as the PML-N pushed forward with talks with the TTP, despite the pace of terrorist attacks continuing unabated, Kayani once again reluctantly embraced talks with militants, and -- in an expression of concern over the compromises conservative politicians might make with jihadists -- stressed that any negotiations must take place within the bounds of the constitution. Having lost thousands of soldiers in its fight with the TTP, the Pakistani army is in no mood to make peace with the militant group -- and the CIA strike that killed Mehsud could have provided the Pakistani Army with a way to scuttle the civilian government's outreach to the TTP.

Undoubtedly, Hakimullah Mehsud's hands were drenched with the blood of Pakistanis. Duplicitous and extreme even among extremists, talks with Mehsud were bound to fail. But the current democratically elected government, though misguided in its choice to engage the TTP leader, should have been given a chance to fail. Instead, the killing of Mehsud -- just as preliminary talks were set to begin -- has allowed some Pakistani politicians to blame the United States for their failure, and the mass murderer has even been branded by some Islamists as a "martyr."

There is good reason to have let the dialogue process reach a natural death. Public support for Pakistani military operations has waned considerably from its peak in 2009. Voters in two of the country's provinces brought to power parties that had campaigned in favor of talks with the TTP. A better approach might have been to allow the talks with Mehsud to go forward and fail. The proving of the TTP's bad intentions would have given the civilian government the justification and public support to order military operations against the group in North Waziristan. Alternatively, the civilian government should have been brought on board in what appears to have been a decision by the United States -- possibly with the direct or indirect support of the Pakistani military -- to target Mehsud, allowing Islamabad to recalibrate and publicly state that it would be willing to speak with other TTP commanders, but not Mehsud.

But now, the killing of Mehsud has exacerbated divisions within Pakistan's polity, and probably also between its civilian and military leadership. The deepening polarization in Pakistan over the question of how to deal with the TTP advances the designs of the terrorist group. Prior to the general elections in May, the TTP mainly targeted Pakistan's secular parties, seeking to divide them and the center-right and Islamist parties. Since the election of center-right parties at the federal level and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the TTP has tried to foment divisions between these parties and the military, saying that it would resume negotiations with Islamabad if the new, center-right governments in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa developed a stance on the war on terror independent from the military. The Taliban strategy has proved effective, with the political class spending much of its time lobbing accusations and invective at one another. Pro-talks politician Imran Khan has been called "Taliban Khan" by his detractors, while he and others have derided the anti-talks voices as "liberal fascists." Similarly, more latent tensions seem to exist between the civilians and the military on the issue of talking to the TTP.

Pakistan will be a safer place when its democratically elected civilian government authors and owns a national security strategy that provides a comprehensive game plan for ridding the country of the terrorists that harm Pakistanis and those outside its borders. Such a strategy would have to go far beyond militant leadership decapitation, clearing operations, and open-ended calls for talks. It would require figuring out not only how to calibrate the use of both talking and fighting, but also simultaneously building the state's capacity to offer justice and security in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan. Militancy in Pakistan thrives in large part on a broken justice system, compromised and under-equipped police services, and a border region with Afghanistan that is governed under an archaic British-era law that engages in collective punishment. Institutional reform is required nationwide. Pakistan's anti-terrorism courts have high acquittal rates, mainly due to the absence of a witness protection program. Its detention facilities are highly insecure, with two major prison breaks in as many years. In the end, the best antidote to anti-state insurgency is a strong, legitimate state that implements the rule of law.

Militant leadership decapitation alone has proved to be limited in effectiveness in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While al Qaeda has been weakened in Pakistan, militant groups native to both countries have endured the targeted killings of their commanders. The TTP's founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA drone strike in 2009, but the TTP -- which had also been hammered by Pakistani military operations that year -- managed a resurgence, extending its tentacles deep into the country's southern port city of Karachi and has even developed ties with Afghan intelligence.

Even as Islamabad reached out to Hakimullah Mehsud, the militant leader did not shy away from attacking the Pakistani state. But with its leader now gone, the TTP will likely have to make more ferocious demonstrations of its wrath. In the short term, Pakistan will probably see a surge in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. There will likely be more fighting among the major parties and between civilian and military officials, as well, over the question of how to move forward and bring an end to the terror and the drone attacks that Pakistani officials have said will wind down soon. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must appoint a new army chief by the end of this month, and candidates include generals with far less restraint than the current army chief, Gen. Kayani. Hakimullah Mehsud may be dead, but his killing could haunt Pakistan for the months, if not years, to come.

NASEER MEHSUD/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Does Listening to Angela Merkel's Phone Calls Make America Safer?

Why mutually assured espionage doesn't work.

When I was U.S. ambassador to Romania in the late 1990s and early 2000s, my embassy colleagues and I assumed (or maybe flattered ourselves) that we were bugged by foreign spy agencies. We gathered that what we said behind closed doors -- that we wanted Romania well prepared to join NATO and the EU, Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Bucharest to clean up its broken banks -- would be shocking: Because we were saying the same things in private which we said repeatedly in public. 

That joke came to mind last week as I talked with National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander when he met with the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs. I asked him to explain the national security rationale for the NSA tapping the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of executives of the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. His answer was interesting.

"If you want to know the leadership intentions" of democratic governments, he said, tapping their phones is one way to do it. 

General Alexander didn't say such spying is needed to stop terrorism or discover existential attacks on our homeland. Essentially, he said that U.S. diplomats -- who are major "customers" of our intelligence agencies -- like getting an inside peek at the private conversations of our allies. They think it helps them do better at least a part of their jobs (reporting on perspectives of foreign governments to the State Department, CIA, and other federal agencies).

It probably does. But how much it helps protect our country is the bigger question, given the costs it extracts in lost trust. I'm sure I could negotiate better deals with my business partners or my Senate colleagues if I regularly read their private emails and listened on their private phone calls. It's human nature to want to know more.

But, on balance, would I work with them more effectively over the long run if they knew -- or suspected -- I was tapping their phones?

The answer is not as obvious as it may seem.

If General Alexander is right that "everybody spies on everybody" in international diplomacy, as he said in Baltimore, then it's conceivable that all the spying increases trust among allies by actually increasing transparency. War is often the result of miscalculation of other countries' intentions, so it's theoretically possible that ubiquitous espionage, on allies as well as adversaries, has the potential to reduce miscalculation as well as paranoia. It may even help advance the interests of the victims of spying by strengthening the credibility of their public statements -- as my public preaching on the benefits of good ethnic relations in Romania might have gained credibility had their spies heard me say the same thing in "secret meetings" in the U.S. embassy.

That's a comforting theory. But it assumes perfect spy craft by all nations - that everyone hears everyone else's conversations, understands their languages well, and has the cultural and analytical skills to accurately interpret what they are hearing. Not likely.

The reality is that some countries will be better eavesdroppers than others -- probably the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and Israel, just to guess -- which would give them a competitive advantage over less-skilled countries. But even the NSA and other world-class intelligence agencies capture only fragments of information from other governments -- just dots which need to be connected, in context, to be useful. So spying probably doesn't increase trust materially.

And the downsides of the "spy vs. spy" mentality need to be counted too. Targeted leaders must try to minimize detection of conversations they want to keep private. A prime minister may not consult her foreign minister in a crisis just because she's not confident her cell phone is secure. Our White House will limit its own access to publicly available information on Twitter, as was recently reported.

And then there's the simple waste of time and money spent finding out -- and reporting -- what the president of France had for breakfast.  None of that is good for the spying or spied-on country. 

Of course the bigger issue is the value of trust among and within democratic societies. Trust between citizens and their governments is the coin of the democratic realm. By definition, dictatorships don't trust their people. And they don't trust other dictatorships -- or anybody else. But democracies survive when people trust their elected officials. When they don't, governments fall. And democracies trust each other. That is one big reason why democracies rarely invade other democracies. 

Spying on leaders of other states is a legacy of the pre-democratic world, the centuries of kings and empires. Everybody was spying on everyone else because nobody trusted anyone else. And war was the repeated result.

But the post-World War II expansion of democracy -- from Germany to Japan, from India to Brazil -- has brought more peace than any era in recorded history. Its basis has been trust -- that France understands that Germany will not attack, that Mexico knows the United States will not invade, that Indonesia gets that the Philippines does not lust after its islands. They trust each other, not because they are reading each other's mail (which they may well be), but because they are democracies -- their people trust their leaders, their leaders trust their people, and the countries trust each other. Obviously, there are gradations of trust, as there are of democracy. The United States trusts Canada and South Korea more than it trusts Turkey and Bolivia.  But, over time, the more democratic countries are, the more predictable and less threatening they are to their neighbors and to America -- and thus more trustworthy.

But too many diplomats, military officials, and intelligence professionals in the United States and other democracies, raised in a Cold War world -- when we really couldn't trust the Soviet dictatorship -- have not adjusted to the 21st-century reality. Yes, American national security is threatened by al Qaeda, China, Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and a variety of other dictatorships and non-state actors.

They cannot be trusted. They are dangers to the United States and its allies. And yes, reading their emails and tapping their phones is the much lesser evil than going to war with them.

But while we may not agree with every economic or social policy in Japan or Italy, they are not existential threats to America. Listening to the private conversations of their leaders is mildly interesting, but it is not mission critical to protect our homeland. Silvio Berlusconi may have a variety of bad habits, but threatening the security of the United States is not among them. And Edward Snowden, a bright, motivated, and disloyal employee of the first rank, has certainly confirmed the argument made by the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his brilliant 1998 book, Secrecy: human knowledge is extraordinarily hard to keep secret -- and the U.S. government is only fooling itself, not its enemies or its allies, when it tries to.

Perhaps because American democracy is 237 years old and few living Americans have had their phones tapped for political purposes, it's hard for us to understand the revulsion many Europeans, Latin Americans, and others felt when they learned that the NSA was listening to the calls of the leaders of Germany and Brazil. But it should be no surprise to us that Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff -- who grew up under dictatorships, one of the left and one of the right -- are not amused.

"Everybody spies on everybody" is a comforting slogan for those who haven't been spied on by their own governments. But those who have been, including the democratically elected leaders of the biggest nations in Europe and Latin America, both of whom are friends of the United States, take it a lot more seriously. We should too. 

As General Alexander said in Baltimore last week, "These partnerships have greater value than some of the [intelligence] collection." He's right too.

Alex Wong/Getty Images