US commanders in Afghanistan aren't the only ones worried that civilian deaths are costing them hearts and minds. The Taliban, which has planted bombs in schools and occasionally burned its opponents alive, has put out a new code of conduct for militants that appears to be an attempt to project a softer image to the Afghan people.
The little blue booklet, "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan's Rules for Mujahideen," is sort of a Scouts codee for the Taliban. Approved by Mullah Omar, titular head of the Afghan Taliban. Mujahideen or "holy warriors" are urged not to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and to always behave "properly" with civilians. Suicide-bombing should only be used on high-value targets, and avoiding civilian casualties is paramount, the booklet says.
"Every member of the Mujahideen must do their best to avoid civilian deaths, civilian injuries and damage to civilian property. Great care must be taken," the booklet urges Taliban fighters. "Suicide attacks should only be used on high and important targets. A brave son of Islam should not be used for lower and useless targets."
Yet on Friday, the United Nations reported surging civilian casualties in Afghanistan and said that in the first six months of the year Taliban fighters were responsible for 595 civilian deaths (as opposed to 309 civilians killed by US and allied forces), up from 495 in the same period last year.
Taliban factions hard to control
Analysts say that Mullah Omar is legitimately concerned about the impact of civilian deaths on his group's image, but that the book also appears to represent an effort to stamp his authority on an increasingly factionalized movement.
"It's very clear even to the Taliban that their present brutal tactics are not having the effect they want and they have lost support," says Fahim Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly. But he adds that enforcing the code will be very difficult since the Taliban is no longer a monolithic entity and is instead divided into several autonomous factions whose tolerance for brutal tactics varies.
Prakhar Sharma, research head at the Afghan Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS) sees the booklet as an attempt to "centralize the insurgency." Not only is the Taliban factionalized, but there are "a lot of criminal gangs who portray themselves as the Taliban so they end up doing things Taliban don't subscribe to." The book forbids, for instance, the common practice of kidnap for ransom.
US dismisses book as propagandaThe booklet's existence was first reported by Al Jazeera on Monday though it was initially released in May. US and Afghan officials have dismissed its contents as propaganda.
Its release comes as the country gears up for presidential elections, which the Taliban have said they will oppose. NATO and Afghan forces are also locked in heavy battles with the Taliban in an operation centred in the Helmand province.
Sharma says that signals from the West that it may be willing to negotiate with the Taliban may have prompted Mullah Omar to release the book as a signal that he remains the key Taliban leader. He also says the Taliban may be trying to show that they're an acceptable alternative to the present government whom they have denounced as collaborators.
Copies of the 13-chapter booklet have been obtained in Pakistan. Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief of the English language daily The News, says the booklet is likely being published there given the practical difficulties of doing so in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan.
But while the Taliban are trying to put their best foot forward, some of the specific advice for their members is alarming. For instance, a responsible holy warrior is reminded to refrain from disfiguring civilians.
Abbas Noyan, an Afghan parliamentarian, dismisses the booklet, saying that the proof of the Taliban's intentions lie in their actions. "I don't think they want to follow the way of normal human beings or respect human rights. This is all just a show."