Is the U.S. assassination by drone strike of Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, yet "another fine mess" in America's tangled interventions in Afghanistan and Pakistan? (With apologies to the Laurel and Hardy.)
Friday's successful strike inside Pakistan yielded one of the highest-value targets, to use the jargon, yet bagged by the US drone program. Good shooting, yes. But good hunting? Quite another matter, it seems.
US drone strike policy again looks, at best, incoherent, and at worst, very counter-productive.
Three months after Secretary of State John Kerry said that US drone strikes in Pakistan were about to end, the biggest one yet went down. "We hope it's going to be very, very soon," Kerry said, when asked on August 1st by a Pakistani television station when the drone strikes would end. In reality, they never came close to ending.
In its aftermath, nobody seems very excited and happy about Friday's American assassination of the Taliban chief -- who of course was leading an armed uprising against the government -- in Pakistan and any huzzahs in American circles have quickly gone hush-hush. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is angry because his government has been negotiating for a peace settlement with the Taliban.
As one might suppose, Hakimullah Mehsud's death may just have killed the peace process. And it is leading to demands that the US forces withdrawing from Afghanistan via Pakistan travel elsewhere. Which could get complicated.
Prime Minister Sharif, in fact, who met with President Barack Obama late last month in Washington so the two countries could make better sense of their long-troubled alliance, had just announced earlier on Friday that his government was beginning talks in furtherance of a negotiated peace with the Pakistani Taliban.
Now that plan is thrown into turmoil. Pakistan's Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, issued a statement saying the US is engaged in "a conspiracy to sabotage the peace talks."
Mehsud was reportedly killed by the American drone strike just after he met with other senior Taliban leaders to discuss the peace initiative.
Why kill Mehsud in the first place? The Pakistani Taliban is focused on taking power in Pakistan, not on launching attacks on America.
Well, Mehsud was implicated in a suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan which killed seven CIA officers in December 2009. They had gathered to honor a man who said he was the physician to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's longtime number two and co-founder of Al Qaeda, then believed to be the terror network's operational chief.
He turned out to be a triple agent.
He promised to provide the agency with its greatest in-place operative yet. But what he delivered was sudden death, in a brilliant sting operation that brought some of the CIA's leading experts to the remote Afghan base. One even baked him a cake in celebration.
After investigating the disaster, the US, at CIA's behest, put a $5 million bounty on Mehsud's head. Which is understandable. The blast which devastated Forward Operating Base Chapman and wreaked havoc among the agency's AfPak experts, also killing the Jordanian intelligence officer who accompanied Dr. Humam al-Balawi to the site, marked the greatest single loss of CIA personnel in decades.
Revenge, dressed up as retribution, has long been a part of warfare. Some might say it's even at its core.
But all military operations have to take place in a geopolitical context.
We've been trying to get the Afghan Taliban to negotiate about Afghanistan's future, even encouraging the establishment of a Taliban diplomatic office in Qatar. In fact, a big part of the rationale for Obama's ill-starred escalation in Afghanistan was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
More than 2,000 Americans have been killed in the Afghan War, killed by forces under the command of the folks we want to negotiate with. If we can sit down with the people who continue to kill our soldiers, why can't we let the Pakistanis sit down with a guy who may have been involved with killing some of our spies?
Which again raises the question of why kill Mehsud when he is moving to the negotiating table with our troubled Pakistani allies? And on the very day that Pakistan's prime minister -- who, mind you, had met with Obama the week before in Washington to better coordinate thing -- announced his government's opening of negotiations with the Taliban?
The move not only seems out of context with what we ourselves have been trying to do, it plays like a slap in the face to the new Pakistani government, coming just three months after our secretary of state said the drone strikes were about to end.
Perhaps there is a good explanation for why Mehsud had to die just as he moved into peace negotiations, negotiations which may well have failed. But none has been forthcoming.
What is clear is that killing him on the very day of Sharif's announcement is playing very badly in a country we're trying to better relations with.
One wonders again, as has frequently been the case this year, who is thinking this stuff through from the standpoint of the overall.