Why a Taliban code of conduct now. By Lawrence Korb


On 27 July 2009, about three months after the Obama administration unveiled its new comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and three weeks before the Afghan presidential election scheduled for 20 August, the Taliban published a book outlining a code of conduct for its members. The book—containing 13 chapters and 67 articles—contains a list of do's and don'ts, including strict conditions for killing civilians.
While US military officials derided this code of conduct as a propaganda tool and not something the Taliban would actually implement, they missed the key point: the fact that the Taliban felt it necessary to publish such a book at all indicates that they fear that the Obama approach may be working.
As the Taliban’s code correctly notes, the struggle in Afghanistan between the American-led NATO International Security Assistance Force and the Taliban is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. While Afghans initially welcomed the US-led 2001 operation to remove the Taliban from power, they became dismayed as the Bush administration gave overwhelming priority to the war in Iraq and failed to follow through on its promises to provide security, development and reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan.
As Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked in 2007: “In Iraq we do what we must, in Afghanistan we do what we can.” At the time of Mullen’s statement, the United States had 170,000 troops in Iraq, only 30,000 in Afghanistan; was spending $12 billion a month in Iraq and only $2 billion in Afghanistan; and had trained 600,000 Iraqi security forces, but less than 100,000 in Afghanistan.
This lack of attention and resources allowed the Taliban to regroup and retake significant parts of the country, particularly in the south and east, beginning in 2006, while NATO did not have enough troops to remain in the areas it had cleared or had not trained enough Afghan Security Forces to do so. It also made the Afghan people wonder if the United States would abandon them as it did in the 1980s after the Soviets left.
Moreover, when the Taliban retook areas like Musaqila in Helmand province in 2006, they executed and jailed tribal elders for collaborating with the Americans and their allies, thus reinforcing the message that while NATO and the United States might be around for a while, the Taliban are there for the long-term. The US military only compounded the problem by relying increasingly on air power to make up for its lack of troops, which often resulted in significant civilian casualties, further alienating the Afghan people.
President Obama’s decision to implement his campaign promise of giving Afghanistan priority and sending in 20,000 more troops and hundreds more civilian workers, providing significantly more development and reconstruction assistance, and increasing the size of the Afghan Army and police forces, could dramatically change the situation on the ground. This infusion of resources sends the message that the US administration is committed to the Afghans' welfare for the long haul. It is these changes, not just the defeat of the Taliban, that will win back the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
To combat these changes the Taliban felt it necessary to transform its image. Rather than relying on violence to intimidate the Afghan population, its leadership issued a code of conduct that urges militants to win the hearts and minds of the local population by limiting suicide attacks, avoiding civilian casualties, not carrying out kidnappings for ransom, and not practicing “discrimination based on tribal roots, language or geographic background.”
We must wait to see whether this code will be fully implemented. In the meantime, US and NATO forces should take comfort in the fact that the Taliban are worried that this new American approach just might work.


* Lawrence Korb is senior fellow at American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. Dr. Korb served as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1981 through 1985. This article has appeared in the Sacramento Bee and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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