The fog of the South Waziristan war


Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud at a press conference in Peshawar in 2008.

Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, whose forces in South Waziristan are under assault by the Pakistani Army, reportedly issued a speech via Taliban radio that urged his followers to fight the Army and not abandon the battlefield:

“Remember this is the commandment of God that once fighting starts with the enemy, you cannot leave the battlefield without permission from your commander, and don’t look for excuses to run away from the fighting,” Hakeemullah Mehsud told his followers in a speech Tuesday broadcast over a wireless radio network. Of those who do run away, he warned, “Such people will go to hell.”

Pakistani intelligence officials shared a recording of the speech with The Associated Press, possibly to promote the idea that the militant leader is concerned about desertions in the ranks.

“We are in jihad and we should not pay heed to the whispers of Satan. We should sacrifice our lives for Islam so that we can feel pride on the day of judgment,” Mehsud said.

A couple of quick points:

• As the AP alludes, it is not clear if the tape is authentic. The Pakistani military has already been caught pawning off weapons seized on the battlefield as evidence of Indian collusion with the Taliban, but this “evidence” has proven false. That said, there is no indication the tape is false.

• If the recording is authentic, how is Hakeemullah able to transmit on a radio station at this stage of the game?

• One interpretation, the obvious one the Pakistani military wants you to believe, is that the recording shows the Taliban are defecting in droves. This interpretation would explain the relative ease with which the Army has advanced in its operations over the past week.

• Another interpretation, the one the Taliban want you to believe, is that Hakeemullah is urging those staying behind to face the Army to fight until the end. Serving as rearguard cannon fodder is a tough task, and a word from the leader would go a long way in steadying the stay-behind forces fighting the Army.

Given that the Army has shut off access to the battlefield to all reporters save the closely scripted, guided tours, it is difficult to know what is true and what is false. Casualties are very low on both sides. Even if 400-plus Taliban fighters have been killed, which the Army claims is true but the Taliban deny, those numbers aren’t what one would expect with a large Taliban force fighting tooth and nail for every inch of terrain. The military says the Taliban have been demoralized and are being routed, while the Taliban claim to have conducted a tactical retreat to fight another day. We’ll know how badly the Taliban have been beaten if their senior leaders start showing up killed or captured and the Taliban are unable to mount their promised counter-offensive against the Army in the coming months.

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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