August 3, 2009

Heart and Mind Games

The rules of war are changing, according to an alleged Taliban handbook obtained by CNN. Dated May 9th, 2009, the book outlines a new code of conduct “to get closer to the hearts of civilian Muslims.” The new rules prohibit disfiguring, kidnapping for ransom, and seizing weapons or money by force. The booklet also advises against suicide attacks on civilian, instead calling for high value attacks on government targets.

America and Afghanistan did well to sync their responses. Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi called the new code of conduct “propaganda” that the Taliban “will never implement." Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker, US military spokeswoman in Kabul, trivialized the handbook and highlighted that the Taliban kill over 60% of civilians in Afghanistan, though leaving the other 40% to American and NATO forces didn't seem to disturb her.

Few truths can be deduced from this propaganda fog, but COIN gold is abundant. Guerrilla warfare creates mirrors. A month after the date on the Taliban handbook, the American military released its own revised code of conduct regarding air-strikes. The goal, as with the Taliban handbook, is to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans.

Both America and the Taliban have committed tactical and strategic errors that require correction. Their respective mistakes have triggered a complex propaganda arms race. On the surface, America and the Taliban trade insults and belittle each others method of operations, but below lies real competition. America and the Taliban have, for the same reason, simultaneously released new strategies and will now struggle to implement them.

America appears to hold the advantage in successfully changing tactics. As more ground troops are deployed and Afghan security forces increase, the reliance of air-strikes should theoretically decrease. But escalating the war will spread the fighting and could increase air-strikes despite additional ground troops. Though there have been no high profile civilian casualties under the new command of General McChrystal, the history of the war suggests that time is the only factor, and Afghans remain skeptical.

In one way the Taliban isn't so different from the American military. As the US army knows too well, new rules of war take time to implement on the battlefield. For seven years American officials preached that they were taking every measure to limit civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but only now claim to understand counterinsurgency. The Taliban’s history suggests no possibility of change. It certainly won't stop robbing and beheading overnight; the Taliban killed 163 civilians in May and 148 in June.

So will the Taliban ever follow its new rules, if they’re indeed real?

Regardless of its history, underestimating the Taliban would be a fatal mistake. Just like America believes it can alter its tactics, so too could the Taliban. American officials must publicly criticize any attempt by the Taliban to improve relations with the Afghan people, but this tough outward response hides inner reservations. American military officials are aware, and should be if they aren't, that the Taliban would gather a wave of momentum if it adopted a softer approach to its insurgency.

The Taliban isn't stupid, not after confronting multiple superpowers. It understands that it overplayed in Pakistan. The movement is wide and disjointed, and many cruel acts have been committed by mercenaries, thugs, and opportunists, not true Taliban. The new handbook has been interpreted as a means for Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief, to weed out criminal elements, reassert control, and improve the Taliban’s image. His recent actions are the latest in a pattern of consolidation.

Mullah Omar, fearing infighting, had attempted in winter 2008 to reconcile the many factions of the Pakistani Taliban. He opposed the offensive in Swat, foreseeing it would provoke the Pakistani public. When war in the FATA became too hot, he tried to reign in Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and redirect his focus from Pakistani cities to Afghanistan. Though Mehsud initially failed to take Omar’s advice, his activities have been quieter as of late.

Emphasizing civility and discipline could be part of Mullah Omar’s new strategy. The Taliban have a higher chance of winning the war without using cruel methods, meaning America has every reason to fear this mysterious booklet. The Taliban has militarily stalemated the most powerful army in the world; tilting towards social development would likely send America packing.

The newest battle for hearts and minds has begun.

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