Code of Conduct: Campaign of Misinformation?

17 Aug, 2009    ·   2947

Srinjoy Bose outlines the possible strategic uses of the Taliban's "Code of Conduct"

The recently issued Taliban code of conduct – The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen – seeks to bring a measure of coherence to the group’s formal structure, organization, ethno-religious war and political aims. Stated in the book are rules which Taliban commanders and rank-and-file soldiers must adhere to; conduct deemed inappropriate (in as much as a specific action is perceived to damage the organization’s goals and image) is explicitly forbidden. There is also provision, albeit limited, for punitive measures to be taken against those who disobey the Taliban high command.

Since the publication of the book, observers have scrambled to analyze and discuss its contents. The Taliban’s strategic rationale, however, has been overlooked or under-emphasized. Is there a more nascent purpose to the book? In her short piece, The Business of Being the Taliban, Kate Swanson argues that the code reflects the Taliban’s attempt to seek legitimacy of purpose. This insight, however, merely scratches the surface. The book’s target audience is not so much the populace of Afghanistan as much as the Karzai administration and the international community – specifically those who advocate negotiations with the Taliban. Strategically, after almost nine years of disparate but incessant fighting, the Taliban high command are cognizant of various shortcomings and realize the value in projecting a re-fashioned image of themselves as a standard insurgency group, flaunting a centralized command structure and a strong (present and potential) support base. Above all, it appears Mullah Omar understands the need to project himself and the group as a rational actor with grievances and war-aims. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of the book is not the specific organizational do’s and don’ts, but the wider (subtle) implications consistent with various ‘rational-choice’ models/approaches that examine war-termination.

The contemporary literature on civil war-termination emphasizes the utility of ‘informational’ and ‘signaling’ approaches to the analysis of internal conflict. I argue that The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen marks the first step toward the insurgent party working toward the creation of a ‘bargaining space’. The code’s instructions pertaining to the applicability of suicide bombings – and a corollary pledge to minimize civilian casualties – is particularly illuminating. Typically, ‘terrorism’ is routinely characterized by the disjunction between the target of the action and the target of purpose. Mullah Omar seems to be attempting to re-paint such a characterization. I argue the motivation behind such is two-fold: the oft-cited hearts and minds agenda; but also, and perhaps more importantly, to signal to the opposition that the Taliban are a genuine insurgent group – as opposed to a mere terrorist entity – one that can be reasoned with. This is not to suggest that the Taliban worldview is any less extremist or more palatable. Instead, the code serves a distinct instrumental purpose. The passage dealing with the treatment of Afghan prisoners also serves to signal to the opposition the Taliban’s newly fashioned sense of magnanimity and willingness to be compassionate and rule-abiding: a most crucial detail if the opposition were to ever entertain the possibility of a power-sharing compromise.

Of course, it is a different matter altogether whether the Afghan Government, the United States and its allies, or those who advocate negotiations, should view Taliban overtures in a positive light. Any Taliban maneuver, especially one that is seemingly designed to court sympathetic views or positive solutions should be viewed with suspicion. After all, the insights offered by the informational/signaling models also caution us to be wary. The true purpose of the code of conduct could well be one of misinformation: designed to woo war-weary politicians/officials/diplomats who consider negotiations to be the sole solution to the (intractable) conflict. Arguably, the Taliban are aware the duration of the conflict (with no foreseeable exit strategy) could politically hurt troop-contributing countries, just as much it could cause Afghanistan’s war-weary population to demand exploring alternative solutions to the current impasse.

Finally, the role of the ISI cannot be neglected. While there is no empirical evidence (yet) to suggest the ISI played a part in the code’s authorship, a Taliban misinformation campaign would certainly benefit (and be blessed by) the ISI. It must be remembered, the ISI have for long advocated negotiations with the Taliban. Strategically, it is in their interest to see a stalemate in Afghanistan, the recourse to which is a concerted diplomatic (as opposed to military) effort. A caveat: I am not suggesting that a mere book could bring about a structural change in the conflict, or that it precipitates willingness to seek negotiations with the Taliban. Instead, rational insights help us understand Taliban strategies and war-aims. Such ‘learning’ is imperative to the study of war-termination.