Last week, the Taliban in Afghanistan admitted that a US drone strike had killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the Egyptian head of al Qaeda’s operations in that country. I came across an interesting piece by Paul Cruickshank, arguing that the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, has been distancing himself from his al Qaeda friends like al-Yazid for some time already.

What surprised me about the story is that as part of this distancing stragegy, in July 2009 the Taliban issued a Code of Conduct, called “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen”, designed to place limits on the use of force by its fighters. These limits are similar in function to the Rules of Engagement developed by Canada and other NATO/ISAF countries. Cruickshank cites a fascinating piece on this Code of Conduct aired on Al Jazeera last year.

These guys could be more ethical than you might think.

As this quote from the document suggests, the Taliban are mirroring western attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population, one of the key principles of Counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare:

“The mujahideen have to behave well and show proper treatment to the nation, in order to bring the hearts of civilian Muslims closer to them.

“The mujahideen must avoid discrimination based on tribal roots, language or geographic background.”

Time will tell whether or not the strategy will work. A press release from the US Department of Defence suggests that numbers of Taliban fighters are seeking to make peace and reintegrate with local populations and authorities.

What the story suggests to me is that we need to be careful of careless, broad brush attempts to demonize the Taliban and portray them merely as terrorist thugs. Clearly they realize at the strategic level that COIN warfare ultimately depends on a voluntary decision by a local populace that its self interest is in allying with one side or another. The story also suggests that when both sides are playing the hearts and minds game, the side with the most firepower (namely us) can’t afford to make mistakes in its application of force. Military ethicists take note.

0 Responses

  1. My initial reaction was that thisv is simply propaganda, designed to mislead the public–after all, if the so-called good guys can put a positive spin on the public's view why can't the Taliban? If this is propaganda then it's very good; the code of conduct looks amazingly comprehensive. Let there be hope!

  2. My take as well: propaganda. I guess it really could be that the Taliban really does share some of our Western values, but probably not so many.

    It would be interesting to see who's coming up with these ideas. Perhaps when Taliban leaders hold a caucus to discuss ethics there are some well-intentioned folk from an officially disinterested country to assist them take notes.