Underestimating the Pakistani Taliban?


The highest estimate of Taliban fighters in Pakistan (TTP) I had seen or heard until today was 20,000 (though inclusive of newer recruits and “conscripts”). In Afghanistan, the estimates I had seen (depending on whether it was based on US or Pakistani intelligence) ranged from 5,000-15,000 fighters.
Somehow I missed an important revised estimate, likely as most of us have been all aflutter over Iranian elections. The Daily Times, a fairly reputable Pakistani daily published out of Lahore and Karachi reported two weeks ago that the Pakistani Taliban’s strength, manpower, and organizational capacity are likely much greater than originally anticipated:

After tasting the toughness of [Baitullah Mehsud’s] subordinate Taliban group in the Malakand division, one can estimate the kind of power he will use when challenged. In North Waziristan, considered a territory of the Jalaluddin Haqqani group, he has Nur Syed Amir, Faqir Dawar and Haji Aftab Khan; the last-named also charged with looking after Baitullah’s foreign guests from the Arab world, Central Asia, Chechnya in Russia and Xinjiang in China. Commanders who lead bands of Taliban marauders in other agencies are: Hakimullah (Orakzai and Kurram with 8,000 men), Rehmanullah and Hazrat Ali (Khyber, 1,200), Umar Khalid (Mohmand, 5,000), and Faqir Muhammad (Bajaur, 5,000). Baitullah himself is estimated to dispose of 30,000 warriors, supplemented with Tahir Yuldashev’s 4,000 Uzbeks and other “foreigners”. The TTP could have nearly 50,000 men at its disposal. If you also count the non-Baitullah Taliban, the total estimate comes to over 100,000.
According to some estimates, Baitullah could have in his kitty around Rs 4 billion to spend annually. This money comes from drugs facilitated by Al Qaeda contacts, Arab money from the Gulf, money made from kidnapping for ransom, looting of banks, smuggling and “protection money” in general. He has weapons produced in Russia, the US and India, and has been looting explosives produced at the Wah munitions factory.

This bears some important implications even if it is only halfway accurate. The good news is that this might actually raise Pakistan’s estimation of the Taliban, at least sections commanded by Mehsud, to an existential threat (which operationally, at least up until now, has not been the case, despite claims by US or Pakistani officials even during the battles in Bajaur and Swat). The bad news of course is that the Pakistani Army will have to face an exceptionally difficult task of dislodging a very powerful Taliban, flush with a $50 million annual budget, from the tribal belt.
If Mehsud calls in Taliban support from across the border, this might provide coalition forces in Afghanistan some much-welcomed breathing room, but it raises the prospect of a battered and demoralized Pakistani army — one that is still unprepared and training for this type of warfare — even if it eventually prevails in what will certainly be a long fight. That does not bode well for anyone — not the US, Afghanistan, nor Pakistan.
It also probably doesn’t help that US air strikes are targeting Mullah Nazir while Pakistan is trying to cut a deal with him to avoid taking on the entire TTP coalition.
— Sameer Lalwani
Update: My colleague, Paul Staniland, who is far better acquainted with this subject than I, writes:

seems pretty massively high to me. Daily Times is fairly reputable, but note how much vagueness they deploy to arrive at that figure. if they mean “young men who could carry guns who are linked in some loose fashion to insurgents” i guess maybe, but 50,000 is massive for an insurgent group, and 100,000 basically up to Chinese/Russian civil war sizes. seems implausible to me. also, keep in mind that this is an editorial trying to rouse resistance and defiance, so inflating the numbers is in its interest.

I am partial to this take, but I still think that if the Pakistani army has had tactical difficulties in previous campaigns — not to mention strategic complications like the 3 million refugees, the largest since 1947 partition, that functions as a breeding ground for militant recruits — when Pakistani army to militant ratios have been 4:1 or higher, any estimates that push the numbers of TTP fighters upwards increasingly forecasts a very bloody conflict in Waziristan.


2 comments on “Underestimating the Pakistani Taliban?

  1. WigWag says:

    Anyone who wants greater insight into the Pakistani Taliban would be wise to read “To Live or To Perish Forever” the remarkable new book written by New America Foundation fellow, Nicholas Schmidle. The book is a tour de force that takes readers to many of the key points of conflict in Pakistan from major urban centers to the Northwest Frontier Province.
    Schmidle, whose father and brother served with the marines in Afghanistan, is extraordinarily brave himself and has a crisp and lucid writing style that is a pleasure to read.
    Schmidle follows in a long tradition of journalist/travel writers. His new book is reminiscent of similar efforts by Robert Kaplan (“To the Ends of the Earth”) but thank goodness without Kaplan’s annoying politics and the famous British travel writer Colin Thubron (author of “Into the Heart of Asia” and “Shadow of the Silk Road.”).
    In my opinion, Schmidle’s book is so terrific that it put me in mind of the best travel book ever written, Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb Gray Falcon which describes West’s travels in Yugoslavia in the days just before World War II.
    I guess the government of Pakistan doesn’t like Schmidle much because Steve Clemons did a post about a year ago saying that Schmidle had been kicked out of the country.
    If only someone of Schmidle’s caliber was reporting from Iran, we might have a better idea of what was really happening in that country in these turbulent times.


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