Pakistani officials sharply criticized the United States on Saturday for a drone strike that killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, summoning Washington's ambassador to lodge a protest and accusing the Obama administration of sabotaging peace talks between their country and the Islamic militant group.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan's interior minister and the official in charge of negotiations with the Taliban, called Friday's CIA drone strike that killed the brash Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud "counterproductive" to peace negotiations and announced that the Cabinet Committee on National Security, the highest conflict-management body in Pakistan’s newly elected government, will “review all perspectives of the relationship with the U.S.”
Khan said Pakistan had invested "days and weeks and months of work" in peace talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the official name of the Pakistan Taliban, but that the drone strike that targeted Mehsud "murdered the hope and progress for peace in the region.”
Speaking angrily at a press conference in Islamabad, and disclosing details of interactions with President Barack Obama, Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Richard Olson, Khan wondered “how can the U.S. say it supports the peace process in the region when it takes out the leader of the other outfit on the eve of the talks?”
Pakistan’s Foreign Office took a similar line as it lodged a protest with Ambassador Olson, summoning him to lodge a protest but not issuing a diplomatic “demarche” -- a formal protest about the U.S. government's policy or actions -- that Khan had threatened.
"The latest drone strike will have a negative impact on the government's initiative to undertake a dialogue with the TTP," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday. "The government, however, is determined to continue with these efforts to engage with the TTP, to bring an end to the ongoing violence and make them a part of mainstream politics within the parameters of our constitution."
The statement added the recent U.S. drone strikes violate their sovereignty and international humanitarian laws and said Pakistan's leaders have raised their concerns with President Barack Obama and the United Nations.
Politically, Mehsud’s death is becoming an anti-American rallying cry in Pakistan. Imran Khan, the chairman of Pakistan’s Movement for Justice (the Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf, or PTI), whose party rules the violent Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province adjacent to Afghanistan, also condemned the strike and threatened to “stop all NATO convoys that pass through our land.”
The NATO convoy routes pass through what the U.S. military calls GLOCs (Ground Lines of Communication) that are essential for the billions of dollars worth of military hardware that is expected to pass through Pakistan’s roads and through its ports as the U.S. and other western coalition powers prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.
Pakistan has officially blocked the NATO supply routes in the past as a form of protest against U.S. actions, but neither Khan, the interior minister nor the Foreign Office have mentioned their closure since Friday’s drone strike.
Pakistani and U.S. officials, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, confirmed Mehsud's death in a CIA drone strike in northwest Pakistan on Friday, along with the Taliban.
A Pakistani security official said the attack occurred in Danday Darpakhel village of North Waziristan, the tribal area where a majority of US drone attacks have occurred since 2004.
A Taliban spokesperson told NBC News that the militant group held an emergency meeting in the tribal area of North Waziristan soon after learning of Mehsud's death and shortlisted four commanders – Khan Said “Sajna”, a TTP leader in South Waziristan, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a TTP leader from the tribal Orakzai area, Maulvi Omar Khalid Khurasani, a commander in the Mohmand tribal region, and Maulana Fazlullah, head of the Swat Taliban -- as possible replacements for Mehsud.
In the meeting, the TTP Shura members from South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai and Bajaur tribal regions as well as representatives of settled areas took part. According to Taliban sources, another meeting took place somewhere in Afghanistan's Kunar province, where militant leaders of the Malakand, Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions were present.
"In both the meetings, Maulana Fazlullah and Hafiz Saeed Khan were shortlisted and it was decided that a final meeting of the Shura will nominate one of them as the next head of the Pakistani Taliban," one of the Shura members said.
TTP spokesman for South Waziristan Maulana Azam Tariq denied reports of Commander Khan Said's nomination.
Unlike the Afghan Taliban, who believe in the religious superiority of their leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, the self-declared “commander of the faithful”, the Pakistani Taliban are more decentralized and “vote in” their leadership through consensus, usually built around operational prowess and tribal lines.
The TTP has waged a decade-long insurgency against the Pakistani government from sanctuaries along the Afghan border, claiming thousands of lives of civilians in vicious suicide bombing and complex attacks on military installations.
It has mainly targeted the Pakistani state but has on occasion helped the Afghan Taliban in their war against U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The TTP claimed responsibility for a failed bombing plot in New York City's Times Square in 2010 as well as an attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan's Khost province in 2009 that killed seven CIA officials.
Mehsud had a $5 million bounty on his head posted by the U.S. It’s not clear if his death is related to the apprehension of his deputy and cousin, Latifullah Mehsud, in Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces in early October.
NBC News' Simon Moya-Smith contributed to this report.
Leader of Pakistan Taliban killed in US drone strike, US, Pakistani officials say