There's been much talk of a more "moderate" Taliban in recent months and years, part of a growing effort to rebrand the movement as a potential peace partner. Statements are scrutinized for indications that the Taliban may be becoming more progressive on women's rights and ethnic or religious minorities. Claims that the Taliban have reformed their past hostility to girls' education are seized upon before any data backs it up. Glimmers of modernity among former Taliban officials are treated as symbolizing a deeper change in the movement (bringing us headlines like "Mullah Embraces iPhone"). And more seriously, revisions in the Taliban code of conduct, the Layha, are scoured for signs of a growing adherence to the laws of war.
The battlefield presents harder facts. As the latest U.N. report on civilian protection shows, insurgents killed more than two thousand Afghan civilians in 2011. There has been a marked shift in their language on civilian protection - for instance the edict in the 2006 code of conduct to attack government schools is gone, the 2010 version of the Layha makes numerous injunctions to avoid harm to the ‘common people,' and outlines disciplinary measures for commanders who cause civilian harm. And yet the number of civilians killed has grown for the fifth year in a row, with the Taliban and other insurgent groups now responsible for almost 80% of the deaths. Targets last year included markets, offices, and protected sites such as mosques and hospitals.
There are two main reasons for this unnecessary bloodshed. Firstly, the Taliban continue to use indiscriminate methods such as anti-personnel mines and suicide attacks. Secondly they consider anyone who is "siding" (or working) with the government to be fair game - as witnessed by the steady onslaught of assassinations of civilians, including a tribal elder and two family members killed by armed men on motorbikes in Helmand in December, a woman in Kunar province shot dead in November having been accused of spying for foreigners, a civil servant also accused of spying who was blown up by an IED in Laghman in October. "Spying" is often the justification used for assassinating political opponents, or simply those too closely aligned with the government. Last year 495 civilians were killed in such targeted killings, according to the UN report.
One area where there does appear to be a shift in behavior is with regard to threats and attacks on education. The UN received reports of 289 incidents of incidents involving attacks on schools in 2011, as opposed to 378 in 2010 (these numbers include indirect attacks -- in terms of direct attacks the Ministry of Education reported 71 incidents). As Antonio Giustozzi recently reported, this trend may be connected to deals struck between communities, government officials, and the Taliban, where attacks on schools stop in exchange for teachers or a curriculum that Taliban officials approve. A senior official in the Ministry of Education told me last month that school attacks were down because they'd recruited 3,000 Mullahs to teach literacy classes. "If you appoint mullah as a teacher he doesn't oppose girls' education" he said. So a drop in attacks may be an improvement but not without cost for families seeking modern education.
Education aside, for the most part the trends revealed by the UN are negative in terms of civilian harm by insurgent forces. More civilians killed by IEDs, suicide bombers and more assassinations. But one thing that the Taliban have improved since the Emirate days is their Communications team. No sooner had the U.N. released its report than two Taliban websites posted rebuttals, in English and Pashto. The websites accuse "international organizations" of "slandering the Islamic Emirate" and describes the killing of innocent civilians as an "injustice and tyranny."
It's not clear whether these promises to protect civilians are made by the Taliban merely as a public relations exercise, or whether they genuinely mean it, but lack the control over their forces that would be necessary to implement their rules. Either way, this is significant for those contemplating negotiations. If the Taliban are remotely serious about talks they need to be able to prove that their promises are meaningful, and that they have the command capability necessary implement their commitments. Both are necessary to show that they can be a serious peace partner.
Recent weeks and months have seen signs of some momentum towards preliminary discussions at least. But the process feels rather lopsided. The preconditions that the U.S. had set out (renounce violence, split from al-Qaeda, and sign up to the constitution) have already been downgraded to ‘necessary outcomes' in a speech by Secretary Clinton a year ago. Little now seems to be expected of the Taliban, except to agree to talk. The focus instead is on enticements, including the release of Taliban prisoners, a Taliban office in Qatar, and delisting of Talibs from the U.N.'s sanctions list. While confidence building measures are a necessary feature of any prelude to talks, the one-sided nature of this process seems all the more unreasonable when the killing of civilians by insurgent forces continues to rise. The U.S. and its military partners could still do more to heed Afghan calls for a reduction in night operations, but the proportion of civilians being killed by the U.S. military and its partners has decreased, with the U.N. reporting 410 killed by "Pro-Government Forces," primarily the U.S., versus 2,332 killed by insurgents.
All preliminary discussions with the Taliban should stress the need for attacks on civilians to end. Frankly, it might help dispel the whiff of desperation about this process if some demands were made of the Taliban, particularly concerning civilian harm. Judging by their PR efforts this is something they know is losing them popular support.
If advocates of peace talks are serious about finding some kind of political solution to this conflict, the Taliban need to be held to account for their careless killing of civilians, and engage in real reform, not just public pronouncements. Not surprisingly, the Afghan public does not seem to trust them. In a survey of more than 4,000 Afghans conducted by the Peace Training and Research Organization, to be released later this month, the vast majority of Afghans wanted peace. But the majority of respondents did not believe that Taliban were serious about negotiations. With so many thousands of Afghans killed and injured by Taliban IEDs, suicide bombers, and assassins, it is not hard to see why.
Rachel Reid is Senior Policy Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Open Society Foundations.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images