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Taliban field manual: A kinder, gentler militant?

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Taliban is mounting a public-relations campaign to try to win the hearts and minds of Afghans with their own version of a field manual that urges efforts to limit civilian casualties.

The little book with a blue cover, Rules for Mujahedeen, directs Taliban militants on how to behave while on deployment and how to deal with enemy combatants, treat prisoners of war and interact with civilians.

The manual, which has been given extensive coverage on Al Jazeera's Arabic service, appears aimed at renewing popular support among Afghans in the face of a U.S.-led offensive against the militants.

The directive also could be an attempt by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, to reassert himself as the uncontested chief of an entire flock of Taliban subgroups.

"This is part of their strategic thinking," said Yonah Alexander, a specialist on counterterrorism with the Potomac Institute in Washington. "This is an old trick to play both ends of the stick and to gain time."

The booklet was issued in May and is the first of its kind in the history of the Taliban, according to a State Department report on counterterrorism.

The report, which was made available to The Washington Times, said the emphasis is on "improving their image and winning over civilians."

The manual also aims to transform the group into a more disciplined and organized political force by centralizing decision-making and discouraging formation of unauthorized factions.

The Taliban, especially with its recent expansion in Afghanistan, has not been monolithic but an amalgam of splinter groups.

In keeping with its religious teachings, the Taliban stresses that the new rules are based on Islamic law. The manual admonishes fighters to:

c Avoid civilian deaths, civilian injuries and damage to civilian property.

c Restrict suicide attacks to "high value" targets.

c "Behave well" to win over the "hearts of Muslim civilians."

c Avoid discrimination based on tribe, language or geography.

The booklet also says that enemy soldiers should not be killed if they surrender and that prisoners should not be harmed. Only the Taliban leader or his deputy can decide to trade or execute a prisoner.

The manual directs that executions are not to be filmed, and enemy corpses should not be desecrated. Only those young men old enough to grow a beard are eligible to join the Taliban.

Afghans who repent for "previously harming Muslims" or who decide to join the Taliban are accorded amnesty and promised safety, the manual says.

Ashraf Haidari, a diplomat with the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, said that he could not confirm the existence of the manual but that "avoiding civilian casualties and summary executions of any suspects is a positive development."

"So far, we have seen the civilians bearing the brunt of the terrorist attacks," Mr. Haidari said.

Anyone suspected of being a traitor or of working for the government was often arbitrarily executed by the Taliban, he said. "If they work for the government, it does not mean they are spies.

"Islam is all about peace and tolerance. Islam is against the killing of innocents," he said.