Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Taliban says stop civilian deaths, but actions speak louder | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

KABUL (Reuters) – On the eve of the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha late last week, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar called on his fighters to avoid killing civilians, saying they should “protect the lives and wealth of ordinary people.”

Though not the first time he has mentioned civilian deaths, it was the strongest message to date from Omar on the subject.

On the ground, actions speak far louder. Two days later, soon after Eid prayers had finished, a suicide bomber killed seven Afghan civilians outside a mosque in the north of the country.

Though nobody expected Omar’s message to herald an instant change of tactics, the contrast between word and deed was stark.

“This is the ugly reality of the Taliban,” said U.S. embassy spokesperson Gavin Sundwall, in response to emailed questions. “They say one thing and do another. (To call for an end to civilian killings then attack a mosque) — it’s an obvious contradiction. From the top down, the Taliban is waging a murderous campaign that deliberately targets civilians … The facts speak for themselves.”

Civilian casualties in the first half of 2011 were the highest since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, and “security incidents” in the first eight months of the year were 40 percent higher than in 2010, according to U.N. data.

Sunday’s suicide attack, for which the Taliban has not claimed responsibility but is suspected by the interior ministry, came less than ten days after a car bombing in the capital city Kabul which killed three Afghan civilians as well as 13 foreigners.

“Our own data consistently shows the Taliban and other insurgent groups cause approximately 80 percent of civilian casualties,” said a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose troops are responsible for security across much of Afghanistan.

“Mullah Omar may be seeing that these casualties feed into a very troubling narrative in the minds of the Afghan people, who see the insurgents as callous and reckless, with no regard for the protection of innocent men, women and children,” ISAF said.

A UN report in September said that a total of 1,841 civilian deaths and injuries were recorded from June to August, of which 282, or 12 percent, were attributed to Afghan or foreign forces.

Air strikes were the leading cause of deaths by coalition forces, killing 38 civilians in July, the highest number recorded for any month since February 2010.

NATO disputed the report.

PROPAGANDA

As the end-2014 deadline for the exit of foreign combat troops approaches, some Afghans fear the Taliban, thrown from power in 2001, may try to make a comeback. If civilians believe they are Taliban targets, public opinion may be overwhelmingly hostile.

“They obviously are feeling the need to address it (civilian deaths) in public,” said a Western diplomat. “They should be feeling some heat for their actions from the Afghan population. In the end, it’s actions that matter.”

If the Taliban does want to change, it will take more than one message from Mullah Omar.

“You have to give it a bit of time,” said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “I’d want to be looking at things like whether they are taking better precautions, and better targeting where the bomb is taking place. The attack on the ISAF bus (in late October in Kabul) — that’s not a place to be carrying out a suicide attack if you’re serious about protecting civilians.”

Still, bringing the issue into the open has its own value, Clark said. “It (the Eid message) has a propaganda element, but I don’t think you can dismiss it just as propaganda.”

It may be that even if the Taliban wants to bring down the number of civilians it kills, it lacks total control over the bombers, or those who guide them.

“We believe this incident exposes some very significant weaknesses for the Taliban and the leadership it can effectively exert over its fighters,” ISAF said.

“The Taliban discipline system is patchy, command and control is not perfect, but we hear occasionally of commanding officers getting disciplined,” analyst Clark said.

“Sunday’s suicide attack would have been organised before the Eid message, if they even heard it.”