Tribes, the Taliban and the Death of Baitullah Mahsud

I was very interested last week to see what would happen, in terms of leadership succession among the Pakistani Taliban, after the reputed death of Baitullah Mahsud. According to scores of press reports as well as Pakistani and Taliban spokesmen, the immediate aftermath was a shootout involving two rival successors, Hakimullah Mahsud and Wali ur-Rehman, that resulted in the death of Hakimullah Mahsud. Within two days however, Hakimullah was phoning in, according to the Economic Times, declaring not only that he was still alive but that so was Baitullah–and that the world would be hearing from both very shortly.

This is pretty Wild West stuff. What struck me on a deeper level, however, was that both incidents–Baitullah’s death and the subsequent succession gunfight–illustrate timeless truths about tribes and the tribal mind-set.

Tribes band together to repel an invader

This is a reality that has been well-established since Alexander’s era, 2300 years ago, when the tribes of Afghanistan/Pakistan/Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan were called Pactyans (modern Pathans), Aparytae (Afridis), Satrayddae, Dadicae, not to mention the Scythian tribes north of the Amu Darya–the Dahae, Sacae and Massagetae. These tribes regularly warred against each other during normal times but came together to attempt to repel Alexander’s invading forces.

The key to such confederacies of expedience is of course a leader whose prestige transcends–like that of Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse–the natural rivalries and jealousies among individual tribes. Such a commander, from all we have read, was Baitullah Mahsud.

Mahsud was responsible, so reports say, for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (though he himself denied this.) His armed followers numbered 20,000. He was a master in the tactical use of suicide bombers as part of coordinated assaults and offensives. Suicide bombings, he used to say, “are our atomic weapons. Although the infidels have atomic weapons, our atomic weapons are the finest in the world.” He was about 35. A tough act to follow.

The Los Angeles Times on August 8 quotes Masood Sharif Khattak, a former Pakistani intelligence official:

The real challenge for [any potential successor] would be to hold together the tribal groups that Baitullah Mahsud assembled. It’s not monolithic. There are serious personal and economic rivalries.

Indeed. Even if the Hakimullah Mahsud vs Wali ur-Rehman gunfight at the O.K. Corral turns out not to be literally true, it’s certainly credible enough that it might be true. Which brings us to a second characteristic of tribes.

Tribes switch sides

Gary Berntsen’s book Jawbreaker and Gary Schroen’s First In both treat as axiomatic the capacity to “turn” tribesmen, usually for nothing more exalted than a suitcase full of greenbacks. Berntsen and Schroen were fighting the Taliban in the weeks immediately following 9/11, when that force still controlled Afghanistan and called their government an emirate. That lofty appellation didn’t stop individual Taliban from crossing the lines at night to have a yarn with their neighbors of the Northern Alliance, nor did it prevent entire tribal contingents from going over to the Western invaders when the tide of conflict turned.

The notorious saying, which originated with the British during their wars beneath the Hindu Kush, is that “you can’t buy an Afghan, but you can rent him.” The condescension in that phrasing is misleading. The fundamental tactical reality of tribes throughout history is that their numbers are rarely large enough to dominate the region in which they live. Necessity compels them to seek accommodations with rivals. The result is not far from our own Five Families in New York: alliances keep shifting; the enemy of my enemy is my friend. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Is the Taliban a tribe? Not technically. But its fighters are tribesmen and tribal contingents, who share the tribal mind-set (hostility to all outsiders, extreme political and cultural conservatism, a code of honor as opposed to a system of laws, suppression of women) and who are harbored by and among tribal peoples. The Taliban, to my mind, are a super-tribe. Their methods and objectives are tribal (to drive out the invader by all means, fair or foul) but their aims are elevated to the next level (dominance of the entire region) by the adhesion of a passionate religious fundamentalism that is in essence the traditional tribal code squared and pumped up on steroids.

Is Baitullah’s death an opening for the West and the Pakistani government?

My guess is it won’t be easy to replace Baitullah Mahsud. I expect a serious power struggle. Tribes are not good at coming together. What’s working in the Taliban’s favor is the stepped-up pressure by the U.S. in Afghanistan and by the Pakistani military across the border. The first law–tribes band together to repel the invader–will still supersede the second. The time will not yet be ripe, I suspect, for the West to try to peel off contingents. But that day may come.

Can we imagine ourselves into that reputed succession council between Hakimullah Mahsud and Wali ur-Rehman? How much trash did one side have to talk before the other decided to let its AK-47’s finish the argument? Not even the Israelis and the Palestinians have that touchy a hair-trigger.

Baitullah Mahsud, I suspect, will be sorely missed.


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1 Comment

  1. Gordon Daugherty on August 17, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Noting that tribal life in the area hasn’t changed much since Alexander’s time, does anyone know how women were treated back then? Same as now?

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