Is the Taliban code of conduct meaningful?

Finding most of Foreign’s articles to be the IR equivalent of reality tv (I go there to read some of the more prominent bloggers but rarely anything else), I was immediately intrigued by this article‘s premise: What can we learn from the Taliban’s code of conduct?

Kate Clark asserts that,

The Code reflects the Taliban’s strategic dilemma as an insurgent movement that seeks to intimidate the population enough to deter “collaboration” with the Afghan government and foreign forces, but not be so brutal as to alienate local people or deter them from switching sides…the fact that winning the support of the local population is crucial appears also to have led to some changes since 2006. For example, orders in the 2006 Code to beat and (eventually) kill recalcitrant teachers, burn schools and have nothing to do with NGOs – which were described as “tools of the infidels” – have been quietly dropped in 2009 and 2010.

The Taliban obviously have a better understanding of Afghan culture than we do, but one wonders if we are naive about their attempts to win the support of the local population just as we are about our own.

Clark, an analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, links the 85-article Code of Conduct here. For a fun comparison, here’s Chairman Mao’s Three Rules and Eight Remarks for the Eighth Route Army:


  1. All actions are subject to command.
  2. Do not steal from the people.
  3. Be neither selfish nor unjust.


  1. Replace the door when you leave the house.
  2. Roll up the bedding on which you have slept.
  3. Be courteous.
  4. Be honest in your transactions.
  5. Return what you borrow.
  6. Replace what you break.
  7. Do not bathe in the presence of women.
  8. Do not without authority search the pocketbooks of those you arrest.

Most interesting is Clark’s closing point:

Journalists…also might find the Layha useful for sharpening their reporting, for example in asking for explanations when the Taliban issue fines, ransoms prisoners or conduct attacks that recklessly kill civilians, all actions which violate the Layha.

The Taliban are generally talked about in black and white terms, either as a group devoid of all morality or as abused and “disappointed brothers.” Both approaches effectively let the movement off the hook. Pigeon-holing the Taliban with the Devil in effect places them beyond criticism…it is important to expect more from the Taliban in terms of conduct that conforms with International Humanitarian Law. The Layha could be part of such a tougher and fairer approach.

My first reaction was to wonder whether it’s possible to have the requisite empathy for the enemy to follow up on such a proposal.  I have trouble seeing America expecting more accountability from the Taliban.  On the other hand, victim advocacy groups like the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict already do. In The Psychology of War (one of my favorite books), Lawrence LeShan’s notion of “sensory” vs. “mythic” wars carries the implication that war can sometimes be viewed objectively enough by the stakeholders for such empathy to take hold:

Leshan, The Psychology of War, Helios 2002, Pp. 66-7.

On another note, Clark makes an assertion that, with slight editing, could be turned around to describe the force with which I served:

Obviously, large gaps exist between rules and action, and the articles that call for the protection of civilian lives and property are often not heeded or are intentionally violated: Attacks leave dozens of civilians dead…and although the movement has set up mechanisms to address grievances, redress can be difficult to obtain, and command and control is often patchy when it comes to dealing with abuses.

There are obvious qualitative differences between our conduct and that of the Taliban.  And it wasn’t until I took some graduate courses on war that I understood how relatively disciplined the US military is in historical terms.  Still, we owe it to the innocent lives lost (inadvertently or otherwise) at our hand to add the asterisk.

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