Monday, August 10, 2009

Uncle Mehsud Wants You!

There is an interesting article in the LA Times today about the Pakistani Taliban kidnapping teenage boys as some sort of recruitment process. It appears that the Taliban has been doing this in Swat for a while to train the boys to be scouts, suicide bombers, and generic fighters, according to both the boys and a Pakistani Army officer. The article discusses the draconian training regime:

The boys were blindfolded and taken to a camp where about 150 other boys were being trained, the 16-year-old said. At his camp, he said, conditions were harsh. Food was scarce, and at times dinner amounted to a piece of flatbread shared among four boys. The recruits had to wake up before sunrise for morning prayers, then run up and down the hillsides. Calisthenics and at times firearms demonstrations followed. In the afternoons, there were indoctrination sessions to convince the youths of the ideal of waging holy war against the military. "We were miserable there," the 16-year-old said. "That's why we escaped."

Transgressions were dealt with harshly. One boy who didn't attend morning prayers had his face painted black. Another boy who used a splinter of tree bark to clean his teeth had his head shoved underwater and held there. He was told he was being punished because he didn't get permission from the tree's owner.

I'm not too sure what to make of this. At first I thought, no kidding - of course they're recruiting boys to do a lot of dirty work. While always cautious of males of any age, a 15 year old kid does not register immediately as a threat to a passing convoy as he is not a military-age male (usually 18-35 or so). It is also easier for them to conceal their true intent by doing what teenage boys usually do in these areas. You can scout against counterinsurgent convoys easily while selling soda and cigarettes, playing football or cricket, or doing menial labor for your family. Obviously the Taliban would love to have a cadre of these guys. This is true also for suicide bombers.
But the methods of recruitment and training seem a little bizarre to meet this model (which I came across in Iraq). First, you don't need to train scouts like this - you just pay the kids and tell them what type of info you want and how to contact you. Second, they make terrible fighters because they are generally too young to be proficient. Spend any time with a teenager and try to get them to do work and you would understand what I mean. Now extrapolate that to hard mountainous insurgency fighting and I would hazard that they become a little more useless (in general - Africa's child soldiers don't fit this mold, but the Taliban isn't forcing narcotics on these kids so I consider it a different case). Thirdly, they said they weren't being trained to be suicide bombers so that wasn't the likely intent of why they were there - and it seems that was kept for the true believers.

So what to make of this? It seems to me then that they were being trained to be fighters as that's the only likely scenario I see based on their comments to the reporter and the Pakistani Army. If I could not be a pessimist for a second, this seems to bode poorly for the Pakistani Taliban. If they need to kidnap teenagers, who will be sub-performing fighters and don't want to do it in the first place, it seems to me that the Taliban might be having problems with recruiting, training, and deploying a large enough force to counter the Pakistani Army.

Ok, optimism is over. For this to matter, the Pakistani Army would need to continue to press against the Taliban and take advantage of this and the reported power vacuum. Too bad that's not likely.


  1. I recommend listening to the Dexter Filkin's piece on NPR in June. He discussed how the Taliban claim to have no need to get suicide bombers because they have plenty of volunteers. This would support your theory that they are training regular fighters. I agree with you thought that they probably won't make very good fighters if they have to kidnap them!

  2. I think I caught that piece. You'd think they would juice them up on drugs - sober 15 year olds make terrible guerrillas.