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The Taliban’s COIN Field Manual

One of the most important chapters of the 2006 Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is the seventh chapter on leadership. “In COIN environments, distinguishing an insurgent from a civilian is difficult and often impossible. Treating the second like the first, however, is a sure recipe for failure,” it reads. “Those who engage in cruel or inhuman treatment of prisoners betray the standards of the profession of arms and the laws of the United States.” Now, it seems, the Taliban is aping the message.

The Washington Times reports that the Taliban has put together a manual called “Rules For Mujahideen” that restricts the boundaries of the martially permissible in an attempt to persuade Afghans that the religious extremists have their best interests in mind. Among its orders: avoid civilian deaths or injuries; accept anyone who joins the Taliban; don’t discriminate among Afghans; treat detainees well. Yes, that’s right: *not even the Taliban *thinks Ralph Peters is right to urge the summary execution of captured U.S. soldier Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl.

Assume for a second that this is nothing but a propaganda ploy and that the Taliban have no intention of abiding by the manual. Will that matter to Afghans? Not long ago I attended an off-the-record briefing by a knowledgeable U.S. official who observed that the Taliban don’t have to be loved by Afghans — and they’re not — to be heeded and to have their legitimacy respected. Afghan understandings of legitimacy are not the same as ours, the official cautioned, and can countenance a harsh, authoritarian hand. I don’t know if that’s true. But if the Taliban are softening their line in public, that might still work to cement Afghan allegiance or passive complicity. Since we’re not Afghans, we’re the ones whose message faces an uphill cultural struggle.

There’s also this quote at the bottom of the piece:

Ashraf Haidari, a diplomat with the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, said that he could not confirm the existence of the manual but that “avoiding civilian casualties and summary executions of any suspects is a positive development.”

Frankly, I would have expected a harsher line here, or an out-of-hand dismissal. Is Haidari triangulating?

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