The Taliban's new manifesto looks like an attempt to engage Afghan hearts and minds, but is it worth the paper it's written on?
They were expected to blow themselves up at polling stations. Instead the Taliban issued its fighters with a manual of conduct, cautioning them to be careful and courteous in the quest for Afghan hearts and minds. The manual is in Pashto, has over 60 pages and a copy of it was recently presented to al-Jazeera. The Arab TV station has a large international audience, and the Taliban have been successfully using the station to spread their ideas beyond Afghanistan.
Reports of the manual also coincided with news that London and Washington were ready for talks with the Taliban after the Afghan elections. The Taliban showed indifference to democracy or the upcoming election, but the timing of their manual told a different story. They were undergoing an image makeover just in time for the elections and wanted the world to know about it. The new, more presentable image was interpreted in the local media as a concession to London and Washington, allowing them to feel less embarrassed for wanting to hold talks with the "terrorist" enemy. After all, holding negotiations with the Taliban would mean that the latter had come out of this conflict as the winning side. From the point of view of many Afghans, this would mean that terrorising the nation had once again paid off, and this time, the UK and the US would become party to the process.
Afghan analysts agreed that the code of conduct signalled the Taliban leadership's intention to change their tactics and focus on winning over sceptics by displaying a more humanitarian attitude towards civilians. For example, in contrast to the Taliban's past unforgiving attitude, the manual offers people who work for the Kabul government protection in return for giving up their jobs. The manual also registers a change of attitude towards suicide attacks, permitting only those that involve important targets. Any other suicide attack is considered a waste of Muslim lives. More importantly, the manual advises Taliban fighters not to discriminate against other, non-Pashtun, ethnic groups. The Buddhas of Bamian might smile at this, were their faces still intact, but Afghan commentators singled out this point as marking a significant shift in policy. Had the manual included equality for women and followers of non-Sunni strands of Islam, the image makeover would have been complete. Afghan commentators noted that the manual resembled a constitution and its focus on fair and lawful conduct, its ban on ethnic discrimination and its condemnation of brutality certainly required the ordinary Taliban fighter to dance more in tune with global norms of political discourse. A new Taliban manifesto, then?
Not everyone is buying into the image makeover. Although the manual's core message is winning over the civilian population, its rules unwittingly reveal the Taliban's own troubles. The manual explicitly bans factionalism and the setting up of new armed groups, underlining that Mullah Omar is the movement's only legitimate leader. Similar rules also show that Taliban fighters have been taking decisions that are outside the scope of their authority, deciding over life and death, and issuing punishment without consulting religious authorities with the required expertise in Islamic law. If Kabul has trouble controlling its officials, so, it seems, do the Taliban. Brutality and corruption on both sides have alienated the civilian population whose support is now being courted by both Karzai's administration and the Taliban in time for the elections on 20 August.
Be that as it may, the question remains whether the change, like many others in Afghanistan, has taken place on paper only. The Taliban's initial reaction appeared to be in tune with their new manifesto. A recent peace accord in Badghis Province between Kabul and the Taliban allowed for voter registration to run smoothly. Elsewhere in southern and eastern Afghanistan, in a reverse of their previous policy the Taliban allowed people to register for voting cards and according to local reports, even the fighters themselves registered to vote. Sceptics saw this as a ploy, allowing the Taliban to pass themselves off as ordinary civilians with voting cards in case they were stopped and searched. But just when Afghan observers started to describe the Taliban's attitude towards the elections as something between indifference and compliant, the fighters issued a message on their website, asking Afghans not to take part in the elections. The message said that participation in the elections amounted to supporting US policies in Afghanistan and Afghans should join the Taliban's jihad instead of voting for a new president. The message marked a radical departure from the Taliban's early indifference and was followed by a bomb set off in the relatively calm city of Herat and eight rocket attacks, some of which reached the diplomatic neighbourhood in the heart of the capital.
In theory, the upcoming election is irrelevant from a Taliban point of view for three reasons. First, as Afghan analyst Wahid Mojdah pointed out in a recent article in Dari, the Taliban believe that only practicing and pious Muslims should be given the right to vote. Hence a leader chosen by a majority regardless of their religious credentials is lacking legitimacy. Second, the Taliban believe that Washington pays only lip service to democracy, failing to accept democratically elected groups such as Hamas or the Iranian government, for ideological reasons. Third, an election campaign held in a country under occupation is by definition meaningless, as the nation is not sovereign.
But still, the Taliban's early indifference is in stark contrast to this week's high-profile attacks. What triggered the change? There are a number of possibilities. The attacks might not have been carried out by the Taliban, even though they were attributed to them. To quote an Afghan jihadi figure, Sediq Chakari, "This is Afghanistan. Someone fires a rocket; it falls on something, kills some people. Who fired it or why? No one knows." The Taliban rarely deny involvement in attacks attributed to them because the attribution serves as free publicity, making them appear more powerful than they are.
But since the attacks immediately followed the Taliban's boycott message, chances are that it was their fighters who fired the rockets and planted the bomb in Herat. In that case, the Taliban might be reacting to something that has gone wrong in the ongoing negotiations with the Kabul administration. Since the negotiations are kept secret, and are being carried out without consultation with the people, it's impossible to figure out what might have gone wrong. But the fact remains that the Taliban would be economically better off if they continued their self-styled jihad.
After all, in its present conditions the Taliban has exclusive access to three lucrative sources of income – zikat or charity from international sympathisers in Gulf states and the west; drugs money, and income from kidnapping and extortion. If they join the government side and become coopted into the Kabul administration, they would lose their international supporters' donations and would have to share zikat from the US with their former enemies in the Kabul administration. The incentive for the Taliban to fight on is powerful and the additional sense of moral superiority that comes with it is a welcome bonus. With so much at stake, the Taliban is not likely to lay down its weapons.