If I had a dollar for every time the Taliban ‘collapsed’

The Pakistani-Taliban-is-collapsing meme has taken hold in the blogosphere. From Hot Air:

The death of Baitullah Mehsud appears to have done even more damage to the Taliban terrorist network in Pakistan than first thought. Without their charismatic leader to unite them, the Taliban has begun to splinter across ideological and tribal lines, and the council Mehsud founded is dissolving into power plays and parochial interests. The infighting might prove more deadly to the network than the Pakistan Army …

If you want to read the tea leaves in Pakistan, it behooves you to look back at the recent history and see just how wrong such over-optimistic predictions have been.

I can’t recall how many times pundits proclaimed the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban as defunct, collapsed, defeated, fractured, etc., in the past few years. We heard it in 2007 when Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Nazir battled the Uzbeks. Nazir was held up as the good, pro-government Taliban leader who would finally eject al Qaeda from South Waziristan. That story deflated quickly when al Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders got the two parties together and mediated the dispute. The exact same thing happened in 2008.

At the end of 2007, pundits predicted turmoil in the Afghan Taliban when Mansoor Dadullah was relieved of command in the South. But the Afghan insurgency only grew stronger, to the point that Admiral Mullen has recently described the situation as “serious and it is deteriorating” and “the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated.” Pundits also predicted that the numerous peace agreements would certainly fracture the Pakistani Taliban. Instead, the Pakistani Taliban took over much of the Northwest Frontier Province. And how many “Awakenings” in Pakistan were touted as the end of the Taliban?

Perhaps this time things will be different and in the aftermath of Baitullah’s death / incapacitation the Taliban groups cannot decide on a new leader. I noted on the day after Baitullah was reported dead that rivalries and infighting over the new leader are to be expected. But you can rest assured that in the end the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda have a vested interest in keeping their Pakistani brethren united, and their word carries weight. And the “strategic depth” factions in the ISI and the military also don’t want the Taliban to implode.

Until the Taliban factions in Pakistan openly come to blows, the reports of their demise are premature.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • crosspatch says:

    Mr. Roggio, the below is meant mainly for other readers, I am sure you are familiar with it but it does explain how a Taliban crackup is plausible under the current circumstances.
    As I understand it, Mehsud held the position of emir (prince) of the Pakistani Taliban in what amounts to a feudal system. There would have been several warlords (think of them as Earls) under him who in turn would have several “commanders” (Barons) under him. They are connected by an oath of fealty (bayat).
    When Mashud died, the oaths of all the warlords died with him. The various warlords are no longer bound to cooperate and are free to cast their lot with anyone of their choosing. There is no hierarchical structure as we might be used to where a “replacement” can be assigned because whoever fills that role will need an oath of fealty from each of the warlords and that is something that is generally earned, not given easily. It is a lifetime commitment. It could take years for someone to emerge in that role again in anything other than title.
    We pledge our loyalty to the Constitution, not to an individual. If our superior should die or become incapacitated, a replacement is appointed and we continue our duties. The Taliban pledge their loyalty to the individual person. That person may have developed ties to many different people, families, and clans through cultivated friendships, business dealings, and marriages over the years.
    A warlord under bayat must remain loyal or he disgraces not only himself but his family or even his entire village. He will be an outcast should he break it. Even if he had been wanting to change sides or leave the fighting, there is extreme pressure from tradition and family that keeps him engaged.
    Now that the emir is dead, the various warlords and commanders are free to associate as they may with no loss of honor and so the notion that many of these individuals may be changing sides is quite plausible. I would caution, though, that the Pakistani press has reason to make these “defections” appear more numerous than they might actually be in order to encourage more of them.

  • Render says:

    A couple of points…
    1: “Prince” not king.
    2: Mullah Omar.
    They’ve lost field “combat” commanders before. They just shuffle the deck again and pick the strongest appearing card. And they have no lack of cards from which to choose. We would do the same thing if we lost a field commander, and we too have no lack of officers ready and waiting to step up.
    Near as I can tell from online searches Hakeemulah Mehsud’s name first started appearing in the press about the same time the TTP showed up. I can’t recall anybody ever mentioning that he had a twin brother. One would think such information about a wanted man might have been useful at the time. How long has the Pakistani government been withholding this little tidbit?

  • crosspatch says:

    The rank and file would have sworn their loyalty to their commander who in turn swears his (and theirs) to a “warlord” or larger commander of several subordinate commanders. The warlord then (maybe, doesn’t have to) swears his loyalty to the emir. The emir might also swear his loyalty (and that of all his underlings) to Omar (another emir, not the “king”). But once that emir dies, the underlings have no sworn loyalty to Omar and can do whatever they want without breaking their word of honor. If their warlord wants to change sides, he brings his underlings with him. That is unless he gets killed, too and then his immediate underlings are also freed from any commitments the warlord made. But don’t mistake Omar as a king. He would be simply another emir. His title was Emir of Afghanistan and might still be. Emirs historically are either independent, serve a king or serve a Caliph and to the best of my knowledge, there is currently nobody openly claiming to serve in the role of king or caliph. You probably get to be an emir these days by simply claiming the title and being able to defend it. Or the people simply recognize you as such.

  • Render says:

    Very good points Cross, thank you.


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