Last week, a U.S. drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, one of Pakistan's most bloodthirsty terrorists, in front of his family's farmhouse in North Waziristan. In every respect, the logic behind the killing appears identical to that of past U.S. attacks against top Pakistan-based terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. Mehsud had American blood on his hands, and he would doubtless seize every opportunity to kill again. His death would be at least a temporary setback for the Pakistani Taliban, a loose collection of Pashtun militant groups, if only because it would have trouble finding a new leader as supremely murderous as Mehsud. Case closed.
In fact, the political and strategic circumstances of Mehsud's killing are a lot more complicated. His death is a possible turning point. Yet it is not clear that Washington will use it to advance greater U.S. purposes in Pakistan. Handled poorly, this narrow counterterrorism success will come at a cost in bilateral relations, regional counterterrorism operations and the endgame of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Unless the United States moves smartly, the killing of Mehsud is likely to have about the same implications for U.S.-Pakistan relations as the U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound. As I learned during a research trip to Islamabad a week after bin Laden's death in May 2011, the Pakistani national debate moved astonishingly quickly from shock to humiliation to anti-Americanism. After that, a series of crises over the rest of 2011 took U.S.-Pakistan relations close to a full rupture.