Just as the presidential campaign in Afghanistan has begun to heat up, with the various candidates publishing individual manifestos that lay out their plans and promises for the country, the notorious Taliban commander Mullah Muhammad Omar, Osama bin Laden’s cohort and cave-companion, has issued a manifesto of his own.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen,” published in Pakistan but clearly meant for an Afghan audience, is intended to be a kind of Taliban code of conduct—to which every fighter in Afghanistan who wants to call himself Taliban must adhere.
The new rules also encourage suicide bombers to “do their best to avoid civilian deaths and injuries and damage to civilian property.”
This is not the first time the Taliban has issued rules for conduct, but it is obvious that the manifesto’s publication was timed to coincide with the presidential elections in Afghanistan. The government of Hamid Karzai, and indeed all of the major contenders for his office, are united in the goal of initiating dialogue with those among the Taliban who may be willing to lay down their weapons in exchange for a few bucks and the promise of semi-autonomy. The new code of conduct may be Mullah Omar’s way of preempting such dialogue by making himself the only legitimate leader of the Taliban—that is, the only person in a position to negotiate anything with the government.
Some half-dozen unaffiliated groups and military organizations in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan operate under the umbrella of the Taliban. (Experts caution that the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban must be considered two separate branches of the larger Taliban movement, with little in common beside tactics.) What we call “Taliban” is a fractious and deeply divided movement made up of different ethnicities and tribes, some of which loathe each other as much as, if not more than, they loathe the “infidel West.”
According to David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisers to Centcom Commander General David Petraeus, about 1 percent of those who call themselves Taliban—including Mullah Omar and his followers—have joined al Qaeda and given up their nationalist ambitions in favor of bin Laden’s global jihad. However, the rest of the Taliban fall into a bunch of other categories.
Some are precisely what the name Taliban suggests: “students.” These are ultra-conservative Muslims—followers of the Deobandi School of Islam—who nevertheless remain totally uninterested in politics or statecraft. Mostly, they just want to be left alone.
A good portion of the Taliban are little more than petty thieves who have grown long beards and who dress in Taliban clothes in order to break into people’s homes and steal their electronic equipment—TVs, stereos, home computers—all of which the Taliban forbid. They then make a hefty profit selling the stolen contraband on the open market.
Beyond these two groups are those Taliban militants who seek to overturn the Afghan government and replace it with a draconian Islamic state. The majority of these Taliban act independently of each other. The fighters associated with these Islamist groups follow the leadership of their individual commanders, most of whom enjoy a sense of autonomy, choosing for themselves whom to attack, how, and when.
But experts see Mullah Omar’s new Taliban manifesto as a deliberate attempt to bring this fractious group under his centralized control, thus weeding out what he calls the “criminal elements” operating under the Taliban name. So, for example, the new rules state that all decisions about what to do with captured prisoners can only be made by Mullah Omar himself. “If a military infidel is captured, any decision to kill, conditionally release, or exchange such a prisoner can only be made by the imam [Mullah Omar] or his deputy,” the manifesto declares.
At the same time, the manifesto offers a set of new rules about what to do with captured personnel while awaiting instructions from Mullah Omar. “Whenever any official, soldier, contractor, or worker of the slave government is captured, these prisoners cannot be attacked or harmed,” the book says. What’s more, “releasing prisoners in exchange for money is [now] strictly prohibited.”
The manifesto goes to great lengths to lay down ground rules for the use of suicide attacks, something unheard of in Afghan culture until the last few years, when it suddenly became an effective weapon against the U.S. military and Afghan civilians alike.
According to Mullah Omar, suicide attacks are perfectly moral and should continue to be used, but sparingly and only on high-value targets, because “a brave son of Islam should not be used for low value and useless targets.” The new rules also encourage suicide bombers to “do their best to avoid civilian deaths and injuries and damage to civilian property.”
The increasing frequency and brutality of suicide attacks against civilians has angered Afghans and turned many against the Taliban. The manifesto acknowledges this problem and tries to alleviate it by demanding that the Taliban “behave well and show proper treatment to the nation, in order to bring the hearts of civilian Muslims closer to them.”
The Taliban “should not search people’s homes,” Mullah Omar warns. “If there is a need to do this, they should get permission from authority and the search should be done in the presence of the imam of the local mosque and two elders.”
If preempting dialogue with the Afghan government ahead of the presidential elections is indeed Mullah Omar’s motivation for publishing the manifesto, it is bound to fail. After all, few of the Taliban look to him as their commander and spiritual leader. Mullah Omar’s alliance with bin Laden has alienated the majority of the Taliban, whose nationalist ambitions trump al Qaeda’s global agenda.
In any case, it is difficult to see how Mullah Omar can consolidate his authority over this fractured and highly individualist movement while hiding out in the Northwest Frontier Province. We have already seen the beginning of successful negotiations between the Afghan government and a few factions within the Taliban movement; it is unlikely that the manifesto will put a stop to these or any future negotiations with other Taliban commanders. Still, it is interesting to note that even the Taliban are aware of the importance of a viable PR tactic in a world in which image is everything.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.