The media have given a lot of attention to the myth that the Taliban are trying to minimize noncombatant deaths. The notion of a kinder and gentler Taliban in Afghanistan is more a public relations ploy than reality. While the insurgent group presents itself as a popular movement concerned for the welfare of the Afghan people, it is killing civilians in record numbers.
In May 2009, the Taliban issued a new field manual titled “Rules for Mujahedeen,” which recommended among other things that they take steps to avoid killing noncombatants, limit the use of suicide bombing and not torture or kill prisoners without the expressed permission of higher authorities. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 20,000 copies of the 60-page booklet were being distributed, and the new guidance received extensive coverage in the Middle Eastern and Western press.
Two weeks ago, in another public-relations gambit, the Taliban released a video of a captured U.S. soldier. Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl was shown wearing Afghan clothing instead of an orange jumpsuit, and he was seated comfortably, eating instead of awaiting imminent beheading or any of the other punishments that usually come at the hands of Islamic radicals. Their implicit message to the world: We don’t do Gitmo.
It is not unusual for guerrillas and terrorist groups to cast themselves as friends of the masses. This is the basis of their legitimacy, claiming to represent the popular struggle against an unlawful and illegitimate regime. Nor is “Rules for Mujahedeen” anything new for the Taliban. In 2006, Mullah Omar published a similar but shorter “layeha,” or rule book, instructing his followers — among other things — not to rob civilians, not to maltreat people who wanted to help the movement, not to smoke and not to take “young boys without beards” into their homes.
The message of peace breaks down when image meets reality. The Taliban are killing more civilians than ever. According to the most recent “Bulletin on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict” from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, released Friday, civilian deaths are up 24 percent from the same period in 2008. Of the total 1,013 killed, 59 percent were because of the actions of insurgent groups, which is a 20 percent increase over the same period last year. In May and June 2009, the period since the release of the “Rules for Mujahedeen,” the number of civilian deaths attributable to the insurgents rose 71 percent over the total in May and June 2008.
The radical increase in civilian deaths makes sense given a recent shift in Taliban tactics. Last month, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s second-in-command, issued guidance to increase the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which he called “planting flowers.” According to the U.N. report, two-thirds of the insurgent-caused deaths in 2009 were attributed to “indiscriminate use of IEDs and suicide attacks.” Thus, while the United States and its NATO allies are implementing new rules of engagement seeking to minimize civilian casualties, the Taliban are pursuing tactics that are racking up unprecedented noncombatant deaths.
Actions speak louder than words. The international community should not be taken in by public-relations stunts like the Taliban rule book. The Taliban are neither kinder nor gentler; they are despicable murderers trying to subvert a democratic government to erect a grim theocracy. They don’t care whom they have to kill to get there.