Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive leader of Afghanistan's Taliban, has issued an updated book outlining the rules of conduct for his fighters.
The thin, blue paperback booklet could be a key weapon in the movement's efforts to counter Western efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
The pocket-sized "Rule Book for the Mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" is a Pashto-language publication that updates a similar guide issued by the Taliban in the fall of 2006.
Published in May, the main emphasis this time around appears to be countering the U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency strategy focused on providing security to ordinary Afghans.
Only recently coming to light, the book appears as Western leaders put forward new proposals to reconcile and reintegrate moderate Taliban commanders and their followers in a bid to end the conflict.
Battle For Hearts And Minds
The recurring message of the book is the importance of consolidating a centralized authority over Taliban ranks and commanders
Its back cover quotes Mullah Omar as telling his fighters that protecting the life and property of their people is the main objective of the current "jihad."
"Give a special place to your friends and your people in your hearts," the cover reads. "Extend a strong bond of loyalty and brotherhood to them so that the enemy is unable to realize its objective of dividing you."
Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University, says that the book has twin purposes: to reinforce discipline into Taliban ranks and to counter the West's strategy in Afghanistan:
"They want to reinforce [strict] discipline in the Taliban ranks so that they can distance themselves from crimes that alienate civilians," Safi says.
According to Safi, the idea is to counter the United States' newest strategy in Afghanistan, which employs a number of different elements -- including economic assistance, a surge in troop numbers, and diplomacy -- designed to win over Afghan hearts and minds.
"Just as the Western troops want to appeal to the people by avoiding casualties among them, the Taliban want to do the same to appeal to their people," Safi says. "They want to reassure them that 'if we get back into power, don't fear us killing you and being barbaric. We will be there to serve you.'"Avoiding Civilian Deaths
Another major message is that Taliban fighters must avoid harming or harassing civilians and minimize their losses of life and property.
The issue was highlighted by a UN report issued on July 31 that says civilian casualties are on the rise, with more than 1,000 deaths recorded in Afghanistan already this year.
The UN report blames insurgents for using increasingly deadly methods of attacks and using civilian residential areas as hideouts.
The new codes of conduct, which Afghan and U.S. officials called hypocritical, provide advice in staging deadly attacks.
"Carry out suicide attacks only on high-value and important targets, so that the brave youth of the Islamic nation are not wasted targeting unimportant and ordinary targets," one passage reads.
Great caution is advised in conducting such attacks, to avoid civilian casualties. It also warns against treating prisoners badly, and gives only Mullah Omar and his deputy the authority to order executions. Parallel Administration
The rule book establishes Taliban as a centralized, hierarchical Islamist organization, guided by its own interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law, which seeks to restore control by driving out international forces and forcing the collapse of the current political system.
The 61-page booklet, divided into 13 chapters and 67 articles, warns its cadres against "tribal, ethnic, and linguistic" prejudices, and calls on them to "represent the Islamic Emirate [Taliban movement] in such a way that all compatriots welcome them and extend their cooperation and help to them."
It forbids them from collecting weapons from people, smoking, severing body parts, house searches, and kidnappings.
It says that the Taliban has divided Afghanistan into four military zones and the book hints at the presence of an alternative Taliban administration complete with governors, district administrators, judges, and local councils.
Compared to the 2006 edition, the guide urges greater caution and has more detailed instructions on how to deal with government officials, prisoners, contractors, those ferrying supplies for international forces, spies, and NGOs.
It urges caution in dealing with such cases and warns against public executions.
"When a convict is ordered to be executed, whether he is a spy or another criminal, he should be shot dead with a gun. Photographing such an incident is forbidden," Article 18 reads.Consolidating Insurgency
In Kabul, expert Safi sees the three major armed opposition groups -- the Taliban led by Mullah Omar; the network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani; and the Hizb-e Islami, or pan-Islamist Islamic Party, led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- as increasingly coordinating their actions.
For the Taliban specifically, the book is seen as part of a wider effort to show their resolve and strength at a time when the country is at a potential tipping point.
"The Taliban have taken a number of steps to control their own people," Safi says.
"They have reduced the number of 'foreign Taliban' who used to be present and operate on the Afghan soil. They insist that there are no factions or groups within Taliban, and that we have one leader and we are one people."