Reports that the U.S. deployed a drone to kill a high-profile Taliban leader in Pakistan are controversial in their own right, leaving aside the growing anti-American populist sentiment in the Islamic nation and rising criticism of such strikes at home.
Hakimullah Mehsud was a leader of the Pakistani Taliban believed to be hiding out in the country's sprawling and largely ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Area along its northern border with Afghanistan. Pakistani intelligence and military officials confirmed his death Friday as a result of a CIA drone program, the New York Times reported.
Rumors of Mehsud's death have circulated previously, only to be discounted. This time appears to be legitimate, following immediate confirmation from the Pakistanis and related chatter among insurgent social media.
But it may not come without a cost. Former cricket star Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, has built a massive following in denouncing the ongoing U.S. drone campaign in his native country. He claimed recently that, in the case of one more drone strike, he would instruct loyal tribal leaders in northwestern Pakistan to shut down vital ground-supply routes for NATO forces.
Closing down these routes creates a logistical nightmare for the U.S. military, relegating them to spending millions more on air-transportation or ground routes to the north.
"Drone" was the highest trending phrase among Pakistani Twitter users on Friday afternoon. Their reaction represents the complicated nature of how the strikes are perceived.
If US SABOTAGES OUR PEACE PROCESS WITH PAKISTANI TALIBAN , SHUD WE HELP THEM IN PEACE WITH AFGHAN TALIBAN?
— Farooq Hameed Khan (@FarooqHKhan) November 1, 2013
Let's accept it thanks to the drone strike. . V got rid of TTP's cheif n killer of thousands of Pakistanis
— mAAmAZ bOΨ (@AleWarraich) November 1, 2013
The true sentiments of Pakistani leadership toward the drone strikes remains unknown. Publicly, leaders all the way up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have condemned them as illegal and crossing a "red line." Recent documents unveiled by the Washington Post indicate the CIA and Pakistani intelligence service ISI actively cooperate in planning and carrying out the strikes.
Friday's attack also comes days before planned peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and certain elements of the Pakistani government. Critics will likely point to the strike as an attempt to scuttle these deliberations.
The use of American drones abroad to target and kill militant leaders has become increasingly unpopular in the U.S., with recent estimates that as many as 60 percent of the American people disapprove of them.
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., organized a congressional briefing Tuesday featuring a family from rural northwestern Pakistan who claimed to have survived a drone strike that killed the family's matriarch. Five members of Congress and roughly 100 people attended. Anti-drone activist group Reprieve organized transportation for the family to come to the U.S.
"We've gone from the most popular country among Pakistanis to, from the polling I've seen, to the least popular country among Pakistanis," Grayson said at the Oct. 29 briefing. "If you ask why, I believe they'll tell you it's this program."
"I think the drone program is counterproductive," he added. "The Pakistani government is in a much better position to take on these actions."
But the reality on the ground may prove differently. Pakistan has largely given up on the idea of deploying ground troops to this mountainous and inaccessible region, says Karl Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron and expert on the U.S. drone program in Pakistan.
"There's no stomach at all in Pakistan for the Pakistani military to go into the tribal areas again in large numbers and try to defeat the Pakistani Taliban on the battlefield," he says. "There's real blowback to doing that."