In July 2009, Taliban issued a “code of conduct,” laying down the dos an don’ts for its fighters. The book was extensive, complete with 13 chapters and 67 articles covering a full range of things, including civilian casualties, prisoners and those who seek ‘asylum’ with the Taliban.
For an insurgency known for its flexible, decentralized nature, this was surprising, and an indicator that the insurgency needed to consolidate its disparate forces and bring some order to the ranks. The rulebook was also surprising because more than 70% of Afghanistan’s population cannot read, and by that measure many Taliban fighters are illiterate.
The book prohibited killing civilians:
Governors, district chiefs and line commanders and every member of the Mujahideen must do their best to avoid civilian deaths, civilian injuries and damage to civilian property. Great care must be taken.
And encouraged a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people:
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 their geographic background. (Source)
As you can imagine, the rulebook has turned out to be a bit of a joke — the Taliban continue to increasingly inflict civilian casualties, destroy property, issue crude justice, harass and intimidate people and restrict their movement. A little after it was published, the International Security Assistance Force mocked it by publishing a press release pointing out infringements of the code of conduct.
In fairness to the Taliban, it is difficult to maintain strict discipline in the ranks of guerilla fighters in the fog of war. Some civilians are bound to get killed and some property is bound to get destroyed. That’s war. But it is even more difficult to maintain discipline when your leader is hiding abroad and issues a 13-chapter rulebook for an organization mostly composed of illiterate or barely literate fighters connected by a vague general idea of fighting the enemy. It is especially difficult to keep order in an organization where there is no accountability. (Have you ever heard of Taliban tribunals punishing wayward Talib fighters? It’s not a trick question.)
Also, it is hard to win hearts and minds when your version of justice includes cutting off noses, stoning couples to death in public, blowing up entire families (and competing to claim credit for it), beheading passengers, burning down schools and killing students, using intimidation tactics to threaten women and their families.
In the end, all a rulebook can achieve is a blip of headlines for the insurgency. Little changes on the ground, and civilians continue to suffer. Almost two years after its publication, it is as if the code of conduct doesn’t exist.