Taliban code seen as bid to spruce image

A Taliban code of conduct that pledges to limit attacks on civilians and curb suicide bombings appears aimed at mustering support among the Afghan people and refurbishing the militants’ international image ahead of peace talks widely expected after next month’s presidential elections.

The code, which Nato officials say was published in May and distributed to Taliban fighters, requires that members of the hardline Islamist movement undertake the “utmost effort” to avoid killing civilians, limits the use of suicide bombers and mandates that prisoners cannot be harmed or ransomed without the approval of a Taliban regional commander.

Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that 20 000 copies of the 60-page booklet were being distributed and that the rules must be followed to the letter.

Afghan and Nato officials dismiss the code as propaganda and insist it does not reflect how the Taliban really fight.

Nato spokesperson Brigadier General Eric Tremblay said the code is an attempt to show there is central control over the disorganised Taliban ranks. Despite what may be written in the code, “on the ground, they’re showing every day that they don’t respect any code,” he said, citing at least 90 suicide bombings this year.

Analysts familiar with the Taliban believe the code is more of a political statement than a military textbook. They note that the code surfaced as the United States military made public new battlefield guidelines to reduce Afghan civilian casualties, suggesting the Taliban are eager to compete with Nato in a campaign to win Afghan public support.

“They’re a highly intelligent insurgency.
You’ve got to credit them with that,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and a security analyst. “They want to mirror any attempt by Barack Obama to capture the hearts and minds.”

The United Nations and human rights organisations have expressed alarm over the rise in civilian casualties as the level of fighting increases in Afghanistan.

A UN report released on Friday said the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan has jumped 24% so far this year, with bombings by insurgents and airstrikes by international forces the biggest single killers. The report also said the Taliban were waging a “systematic campaign of intimidation and violence” aimed at Afghans who support the US-backed government.

Western military officers believe the code shows that the Taliban realise they have lost support among many Afghans who are tired of war. As evidence, Nato officials say Afghans are more willing to provide information on Taliban activity.

For example, Lieutenant Colonel Bertrand Fayet, a spokesman for Nato’s Kabul military region, said local residents in Kapisa province reported the location of 10 of the 16 roadside bombs found in that area north of the capital over the last two months. Those 10 bombs were defused.

Taliban leaders are likely aware that the tide began to turn against Sunni insurgents in Iraq when ordinary Iraqis started to report on insurgent activities. Opposition to mass attacks on Shi’ite civilians prompted some key Iraqi nationalist insurgent groups to oppose al-Qaeda.

“They’ve become unpopular among the educated Islamist opinion, and they’re certainly trying to repair the damage,” said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief in Pakistan’s tribal regions, which insurgents use as a base for attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Masood said the Taliban also need to refurbish their image among supporters outside the country, including those in Persian Gulf countries that are a major source of funds. This week, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, said the Taliban receive more funding from their sympathisers abroad than from Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade.

Image will be important if, as is widely expected, the Afghan government offers peace talks with the Taliban after the August 20 presidential election. Some low-level, informal contacts have already taken place.

President Hamid Karzai, the front-runner in the August balloting, has offered talks with Taliban groups willing to renounce violence. Such talks would be easier with a group that claims to follow international rules of warfare rather than with terrorists.

Mustafa Alani, director of terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said the Taliban hope the code will show that they are a legitimate resistance movement.

“So they really want to show they can be an acceptable partner in negotiations,” Alani said.—Sapa-AP

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