By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan - The Taliban have embarked on a sophisticated information war, using modern media tools as well as some old-fashioned ones, to soften their image and win favor with local Afghans as they try to counter the Americans’ new campaign to win Afghan hearts and minds.
The Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, issued a lengthy directive late last spring outlining a new code of conduct for the Taliban. The dictates include bans on suicide bombings against civilians, burning down schools, or cutting off ears, lips and tongues.
The code, which has been spottily enforced, does not necessarily mean a gentler insurgency. Although the Taliban warned some civilians away before an assault on the heart of Kabul on January 18, they were still responsible for three-quarters of civilian casualties last year, according to the United Nations.
Now, as the Taliban deepen their presence in more of Afghanistan, they are in greater need of popular support and are recasting themselves increasingly as a local liberation movement, independent of Al Qaeda, capitalizing on the mounting frustration of Afghans with their own government and the presence of foreign troops. The effect has been to make them a more potent insurgency, some NATO officials said.
Afghan villagers and some NATO officials added that the code had begun to change the way some midlevel Taliban commanders and their followers behaved on the ground. A couple of the most brutal commanders have even been removed by Mullah Omar.
The Taliban’s public relations operation is also increasingly efficient at putting out its message and often works faster than NATO’s. “The Afghan adaptation to counterinsurgency makes them much more dangerous,” said a senior NATO intelligence official here. “Their overarching goals probably haven’t changed much since 2001, but when we arrived with a new counterinsurgency strategy, they responded with one of their own.”
The American strategy includes limiting airstrikes that killed Afghan civilians and concentrating troops closer to population centers so that Afghans will feel protected from the Taliban.
American and Afghan analysts see the Taliban’s effort as part of a broad initiative that employs every tool they can muster, including the Internet technology they once denounced as un-Islamic. Now they use word of mouth, messages to cellphones and Internet videos to get their message out.
“The Taliban are trying to win the favor of the people,” said Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban official who now tracks the insurgency on the Internet and frequently comments on Afghan television. “The reason they changed their tactics is that they want to prepare for a long-term fight, and for that they need support from the people; they need local sources of income,” he said. “So, they learned not to repeat their previous mistakes.”
The new public relations campaign combined with relatively less cruel behavior may have stemmed some of the anger at the insurgency, which tribal leaders in the south said had begun to rally people against the Taliban.
But the most important factor in their growing reach is the ineffectiveness of the central government and Afghans’ resentment of foreign troops. Military intelligence analysts now estimate that there are 25,000 to 30,000 committed Taliban fighters and perhaps as many as 500,000 others who would fight either for pay or if they felt attacked by the Western coalition.
The effort to change the Taliban’s image began in earnest last May when Mullah Omar disseminated his new code of conduct. The New York Times obtained a copy of the document through a Taliban spokesman.
Creating a code of behavior is one thing, enforcing it another. The Taliban have survived in part because they are an atomized movement and it is difficult to persuade local commanders to follow directives from leaders living hundreds of kilometers away in Pakistan.
Despite an edict that says in suicide attacks “to try your best to avoid killing local people,” a suicide bombing in Oruzgan Province on January 14 killed 16 civilians.
“If you compare the document to actual behavior, Mullah Omar only has marginal control over his forces,” said Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, the director of communications for NATO. “A portion of it may stick in some parts of the country, but not in other places.”
Many Afghans see their government as corrupt and ineffective. A banner of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. / ADAM FERGUSON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES