WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan – As elections draw near in Afghanistan, it appears the Taliban are launching a hearts-and-minds campaign of their own.
In recent weeks, Mullah Mohammad Omar, commander of Taliban forces, has released a code-of-ethics handbook that, among other directives, warns his followers not to conscript children or target innocent people. It also says bombs should be used to kill only government officials and coalition soldiers.
In the 62-bullet-point handbook, homicide bombers get specific instructions. They are to "be fully-educated in their mission"; they are to target "high ranking people"; and they are to "try your best to avoid killing local people."
Taliban followers are further prohibited from smoking cigarettes, using captured vehicles for their personal use, cutting noses, lips or ears off detainees, and drafting "youngsters that have no beard." (As soon as a boy can grow a beard, he is considered an adult in Afghan culture.)
The handbook — written in Pashto and obtained through U.S. military sources — is entitled "Afghanistan Islamic Emirate Rules and Regulations," and it is addressed to the "Mujahideen Pashto," or Taliban commanders. Written on May 9 in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, it characterizes the Taliban's fight as a "jihad" that can be achieved only if "it is done according to the framework of the established rules and regulations."
Those regulations cover a broad and rambling range of issues — from rules on behavior to settling personnel issues to sanctioned methods of kidnapping and killing. The handbook prohibits taking money in order to forgive someone; it says that every mujahid "should be responsible for all the bad things they have done in the past"; and it directs Taliban commanders not to force donations from people.
But American commanders and local villagers have little faith that Omar's rules will have any effect on the people of Afghanistan or the conduct of the war.
“It’s an attempt by the Taliban to put on a softer face," said Col. David B. Haight, commander of the U.S. Army’s 3rd brigade, 10th Mountain division. "They don’t want to be perceived as the bad guys anymore. They don’t want to drive people into our arms ... or the arms of Al Qaeda.”
In a country where an estimated 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men who live outside Kabul are illiterate, it's unlikely that many of Omar's followers have actually read the handbook. Matt Sherman, political adviser to the 3rd brigade, 10th Mountain division, says it’s unlikely that they've even seen it.
“Many of them are taking their orders from their local leaders,” Sherman said, “Many are taking up arms for economic reasons.There’s no one Taliban.”
General Muzafardeen, the police chief for Afghanistan's Wardak Province, agrees.
“[The] Taliban doesn’t really have [united] leadership, they don't link up with each other," he told FOXNews.com. Muzafardeen said he doesn’t think the handbook will change any of the enemy’s tactics.
“No one will listen to Mullah Omar,” he said.
In the handbook, Omar writes that "The people should be free, and they should be able to donate to any group that they want."
It also sets regulations for how the Taliban's shadow government and justice system should be organized, and it directs followers to forget all tribal and language differences.
"If you are living under one flag and fighting under the same flag, then the language or tribal differences should not be important," the document reads.
In other places, Omar appears to contradict himself — telling Taliban commanders early in the document that they cannot kidnap drivers, contractors or soldiers for money — and later telling them that they can, if they're caught "transporting infidel equipment."
But the handbook noticeably makes no mention of IEDs — the improvised explosive devices that are the Taliban's weapon of choice in Afghanistan — probably because "they perceive [IEDs to be] their most effective and decisive weapon,” Colonel Haight said.
And since the handbook was issued, insurgents have continued to use children in the fight, General Muzafardeen said.
“The enemy is still using the towns to fight [and] to shoot at the police or the coalition. "They’re using the kids to keep the IEDs, and also they’re giving the kids remote control of the IEDs.
"It’s the kids who push the buttons to blow up the IEDs.... They are [even] using the kids for suicide bomb attacks.”
IEDs are an indiscriminate way to kill — endangering anyone who drives over the trigger. Forty-two American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last month, the most lethal month for U.S. troops in the country since 2001, and 70 percent of those casualties came from IEDs in Wardak Province, officials said.
IEDs pose a danger for the Afghans, too.
On a recent visit to Charkh district in Logar Province, Haight spoke with a man farming beside the village road where just a day earlier, an IED tore up the road and a coalition vehicle, nearly killing his soldiers.
“I know you’re scared, but I know that you know who put those explosives there, and I need you to tell the police or the U.S. Army who it was,” he told the farmer.
“I don’t know who put the IED over here,” the farmer said, “[but] I know you guys take care of us, because this morning, your guys told me to go away from here and leave this area.
“We know that the enemy never takes care of us,” he said.
Haight doesn’t expect the handbook to change the level of violence his soldiers are experiencing. In July alone, his troops were hit 50 times by IEDs and found 40 more. At least five soldiers have been killed by IEDs in the past week alone.
So his plan is to use what he describes as "Taliban propaganda" against the enemy.
“I’d like to be able to take [the handbook] with me when I talk to people and show them that [the Taliban] is breaking their own rules,” he said.