When the United Nations released its mid-year review of civilian deaths in July, arguing that 80 percent were caused by anti-government elements, there was a loud protest by Taliban leaders. Pointing to their own code of conduct, they refuted the assertion. UN officials – hoping to limit the random bombings, explosions and suicide attacks that are responsible for most civilian deaths – see the reaction as an opportunity for engagement.
The Taliban first issued its rulebook, called the Layeha, in 2006, refining it three times in the subsequent four years. The code, which spells out dos and don’ts for Taliban fighters, deals with a variety of situations from when executions are permitted to protecting civilian lives and property. While some analysts believe the code can benefit negotiations with the Taliban, others warn that it is embraced by too small a portion of the fragmented movement to be genuinely useful.
In a July report examining the Layeha, Kate Clark of the Afghan Analysts Network argued that the code should be “used to help chart a tougher and fairer approach by expecting the Taliban to at least uphold their own stated norms.” She reasoned that the movement should neither be dismissed as irreconcilable, nor referred to as “upset brothers,” as President Hamid Karzai has done, which whitewashes their crimes.
A steady increase in civilian casualties makes it easy to dismiss the relevance of any code, but also underlines its urgency. Civilian casualties are up 15 percent this year compared with last; by June, anti-government forces are alleged to have killed 1,167 civilians.
In its latest quarterly report, the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), an independent charity that monitors safety conditions for humanitarians, noted that violent attacks against NGO workers were up by 73 percent compared to the same period last year. But ANSO feels NGOs are not being singled out for attacks, instead attributing the increased violence to “ignorant targeting” rather than insurgent policy. “We still assess that AOGs [armed opposition to the government] do not attack NGOs as a matter of national policy, but rather at the decision of the local representative,” ANSO concluded.
Still, not everyone is convinced the Taliban is concerned about civilian deaths. “The Layeha is part of the propaganda strategy of the Taliban,” Waliullah Rahmani, the Director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, told EurasiaNet.org. “There are no documents to support its [the Layeha’s] use on the battlefield by the Taliban commanders.”
The increasing conflict has led to rapid changes in how the insurgents operate, often resulting in localized decision-making and lack of communication or oversight.
“The Layeha obviously plays a role in communicating IEA [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the original Taliban movement] policy toward its members nationwide and we have certainly seen that applied, and referenced, at the provincial command level and above. Below this, at the district and sub-district levels, however, the fact of ongoing violent attacks on aid workers suggest that the rule book is either not being respected or effectively enforced,” ANSO director Nic Lee told EurasiaNet.org.
Having banned torture, mutilation and beheadings, the Layeha may present a baseline for reconciliation talks. But the code is ambiguous on education and health. In many areas the Taliban has forced the closure of schools, especially girls schools, and have reportedly attacked health facilities in Kabul and Logar recently. “The code is by no means unproblematic,” Clark of the Afghan Analysts Network told EurasiaNet.org. “But, where it reinforces the law of armed conflict, for example in the protection of civilians, it creates an opportunity to use the Taliban’s own words to hold the movement to some sort of account.”
For example, though the Layeha specifically bans landmines, the head of the UN mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), Staffan de Mistura, noted at a July 14 press conference that the Taliban uses such weapons extensively. Pressure-plated landmines, de Mistura pointed out, are indiscriminate. The UN has also identified IEDs (improvised explosive devices) as the single-largest cause of civilian casualties, accounting for 30 percent of the deaths.
That criticism apparently stung the Taliban. In a statement soon after the UN’s findings on civilian casualties were released, the movement’s leadership said: “UNAMA accuses the mujahedeen of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan] of having caused casualties to the common people by planting landmines. However, all countrymen know that mujahedeen use landmines that are controlled remotely, i.e. they are not detonated by heavy pressure. So the mujahedeen’s mines aim only at a specific targets.”
For the UNAMA, such a response is still a cause for optimism. “The fact that the Taliban have been discussing this issue of civilian casualties … gives, we want to believe, hope that they are serious in also addressing the actual fact produced by these landmines,” de Mistura said.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.