Commander Of The Fearful

Imtiaz Ali’s profile of Baitullah Mehsud in Foreign Policy, “Commander of the Faithful,” raises an interesting question. In summarizing Mehsud’s deeds and accomplishments of the last few years, Ali writes

With this singular résumé, it was no surprise that Mehsud was named head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan when the group formed in December 2007. Since then, the man known asamir(leader) by his followers has expanded his campaign by launching a remarkably effective drive to erode state writ and disassemble traditional tribal structures, both of which constitute obstacles to Taliban rule. He has ordered the murder of more than 300 tribal elders, clearing the way for Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt to become something of a forward operating base for terrorists.

There’s an ellided point of emphasis here that nods to what I always thought was Mehsud’s (if not the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s) principal vulnerability. First, he wasn’t just “named” head of the TeTP; there was a direct causal relationship between Mehsud’s murder of hundreds of tribal elders, and the ensuing leadership vacuum that enabled his subsequent leadership of the group. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan started as an umbrella of Pahstun tribal interests, with Mehsud voted in, post  tribal putsch. This raises a further question as to how much it has (or parts of it have) since gelled around Mehsud, and to what extent it remains an extended alliance of convenience or expediency. There are fissures within the TeTP, as Ali writes, but he’s also pessimistic about Pakistani approaches to the problem: “the government has met little success,” he writes, “because Mehsud has in many cases dismantled the centuries-old tribal structures in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); there is no mechanism left to mobilize against him.” I’m not so sure: the TeTP itself is made up of individuals and groups that rely on those very same mechanisms. 

One comment

  1. I share the skepticism. The murder of 300, or even 3000, "tribal elders" will not destroy the patterns of loyalty. It will have an effect, obviously. But from what I’ve seen in the history of Central Asia, mass murder actually does not destroy "tribal" (or qawm) authority patterns. It takes massive economic incentives and changes in subsistence patterns (i.e., "modernization" or sedentarization or migration to urban areas) to do this. Even then, in some cases they have survived by, for example, moving solidarity groups en masse into a single neighbourhood or area. Even Soviet state structures were colonized by tribal/qawm groups.I really doubt that Mehsud has "dismantled the centuries-old tribal structures." Just because locals aren’t mobilizing against him does not mean that they no longer have local authority structures in place. In AF, Abdur Rahman tallied a body count of local leaders in the 10s of thousands. But local patterns of loyalty and authority just pushed 2nd tier guys into those positions. A hundred years later, continuous war and outside funding has allowed for some new authority patterns to emerge. But this took at least a decade of devastating conflict and massive in-flows of money and arms to the leaders of the jihadi parties (only two of whom tried to operate outside local authority patterns). And some of the changes seen are in fact not changes from the Soviet-Afghan and civil war eras, but effects of the "intrusion" of a modern market economy.

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