Have the Taliban changed their tune?

On the holiest day of the Muslim calendar, Eid al-Adha, a suicide bomber blew himself up among worshippers as they were leaving a mosque in a village in Baghlan province. One commander from the Afghan Local Police was reported killed, along with at least three civilians and four others, with a further eighteen civilians wounded. ...

GUL RAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
GUL RAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
GUL RAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

On the holiest day of the Muslim calendar, Eid al-Adha, a suicide bomber blew himself up among worshippers as they were leaving a mosque in a village in Baghlan province. One commander from the Afghan Local Police was reported killed, along with at least three civilians and four others, with a further eighteen civilians wounded. Although not claimed by the Taliban, the bombing fitted in with their normal pattern of attacks. This would hardly have been breaking news, except that two days previously, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in his Eid message to the nation, had given the clearest orders yet to Taliban fighters on civilian casualties, telling them to take every step to "protect the lives, wealth and honor of ordinary people." The attack left many people wondering whether Omar's message had been pure propaganda, or evidence of the leadership's limited control over its fighters.

The Baghlan attack was already dubious under the Taliban Code of Conduct, (see the text and an analysis here). Issued in May 2010, it orders Taliban fighters to, "with all their power... be careful with regard to the lives of the common people and their property." Under the fresh orders given in Mullah Omar's Eid message the attack is indefensible. He devotes about a quarter of his message to outlining new orders that are far more comprehensive and detailed than anything issued by the Taliban on civilian casualties to date. Unlike the Code of Conduct, which was aimed at field commanders and distributed in some areas more than others, Omar's Eid message was delivered very publicly -- a fact that may also help put pressure on the Taliban to enforce them.

On the one hand, it is important that Omar has admitted that the Taliban (or mujahideen as he calls them) are killing civilians. This seems obvious. After all, according to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 80 percent of all civilian deaths in the conflict are caused by the armed opposition (30 percent die from Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, 19 percent in complex suicide operations and 13 percent in assassinations). However, the Taliban normally lie about such things (see for example this interview with a Taliban IED unit commander).

On the holiest day of the Muslim calendar, Eid al-Adha, a suicide bomber blew himself up among worshippers as they were leaving a mosque in a village in Baghlan province. One commander from the Afghan Local Police was reported killed, along with at least three civilians and four others, with a further eighteen civilians wounded. Although not claimed by the Taliban, the bombing fitted in with their normal pattern of attacks. This would hardly have been breaking news, except that two days previously, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in his Eid message to the nation, had given the clearest orders yet to Taliban fighters on civilian casualties, telling them to take every step to "protect the lives, wealth and honor of ordinary people." The attack left many people wondering whether Omar’s message had been pure propaganda, or evidence of the leadership’s limited control over its fighters.

The Baghlan attack was already dubious under the Taliban Code of Conduct, (see the text and an analysis here). Issued in May 2010, it orders Taliban fighters to, "with all their power… be careful with regard to the lives of the common people and their property." Under the fresh orders given in Mullah Omar’s Eid message the attack is indefensible. He devotes about a quarter of his message to outlining new orders that are far more comprehensive and detailed than anything issued by the Taliban on civilian casualties to date. Unlike the Code of Conduct, which was aimed at field commanders and distributed in some areas more than others, Omar’s Eid message was delivered very publicly — a fact that may also help put pressure on the Taliban to enforce them.

On the one hand, it is important that Omar has admitted that the Taliban (or mujahideen as he calls them) are killing civilians. This seems obvious. After all, according to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 80 percent of all civilian deaths in the conflict are caused by the armed opposition (30 percent die from Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, 19 percent in complex suicide operations and 13 percent in assassinations). However, the Taliban normally lie about such things (see for example this interview with a Taliban IED unit commander).

It is also important that Omar has spoken about harming civilians in terms of misconduct, treating it (at least rhetorically) as an offence that should be investigated and, if necessary, punished. He says:

If it is irrefutably proven that the blood of innocent Muslims is spilled by the negligence of Mujahideen then a penalty should be implemented in accordance with [Islamic law] after extensive investigation and all steps should be taken to seek the pardon and pleasure of the inheritors and affectee.

As with any set of rules, though, these will only be as good as their implementation. In a guerrilla organisation, orders take time to filter down to fighters on the ground, which makes it difficult to judge the Baghlan attack (and even other attacks that have taken place this week) in light of Omar’s statement. However, if the Taliban leadership was serious about trying to reduce civilian casualties, we would see new rules issued to field commanders, some disciplining of the worst offenders and some change in patterns of casualties. 

That said, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of results. The Taliban’s grievance and discipline mechanisms are, at best, patchy. There are accounts of commanders being disciplined, disarmed or summoned to Quetta (an example of this was the quiet disarming and dismissal of Mullah Adam who, in October 2008, ordered the killing of 27 laborers from Laghman who were travelling in a bus in Helmand to Iran; the Taliban never admitted to the murders in public, instead claiming the victims had been Afghan National Army soldiers). However, there are many more examples known to Afghans and observers alike of commanders literally getting away with murder and of civilians being too frightened or powerless to complain.

Moreover, these are difficult days for maintaining internal discipline — assuming there is the political will and capability to do it. The Taliban are now an ‘old’ guerrilla movement, with the days of idealistic fervor long gone and the synergy between war and crime all too apparent. Its fighters and commanders are also under heavy strain as a result of NATO combat operations. Nevertheless, the movement has changed the ways it has fought before because of popular pressure. In the last few years, its murderous policy towards schools, teachers and what the 2006 Code of Conduct called "tools of infidels" like NGOs, has been replaced by a much more pragmatic policy.  It is now far easier to keep schools (especially those for boys) and NGOs open in Taliban-controlled areas.

Additionally, while these new orders may be useful, the wording still leaves room for atrocities to take place. The problems start with the Taliban’s understanding of the word "civilian." They generally divide the Afghan nation into those who are with them and those who are against — and unashamedly kill many of the latter. These typically include tribal elders, scholars, politicians, and drivers and contractors who work with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Under international laws of conflict, those not participating in hostilities must be treated as civilians, and deliberately killing them is a war crime.

It is telling in this regard that Mullah Omar orders all Taliban shadow governors to, "give full attention… to preventing the use of threatening letters and telephone calls in the name of the mujahideen against innocent people…" There is no ban on issuing threats — which frequently precede assassinations — only on threatening innocent people. Civilians who are deliberately targeted by the group will thus not be protected under these new rules.

Even so, many Afghans, classed as civilian according to the Taliban and international law, should now come much more firmly under Taliban rules as deserving protection. This would have likely been the case for the worshippers in the mosque in Baghlan, for example.  

In the end, Omar’s Eid message should not be dismissed purely as propaganda. If nothing else, the public delineation of rules governing conduct towards civilians creates some expectation among fighters and the suffering Afghan population that they should be carried out. They also provide journalists and human rights organizations with a new means of holding the Taliban to account. The U.N.’s human rights sections has already been using the Taliban Code of Conduct in this respect, and this reference to when the Taliban break their own rules has sharpened its on-going public dialogue on civilian casualties with the group over the last 18 months. U.N. reports on the protection of civilians have been the source of a great deal of bad publicity for the Taliban, and this public pressure may be one reason why so much of this year’s Eid message was devoted to civilian casualties. 

The U.N. response to Omar’s message was to immediately up the ante. If the Taliban were serious about preventing civilian casualties, it said, they should immediately ban pressure-plate IEDs – weapons which are inherently indiscriminate, illegal under Omar’s own 1998 ban on anti-personnel mines, and run counter to his new orders. Short of all parties to the conflict calling a cease-fire, banning pressure-plate IEDs would be the single most useful thing anyone could do to reduce civilian casualties. The Taliban leadership have yet to respond.

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

 

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