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Taliban on explosive devices

November 1, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary:  The Taliban have publically responded to UNAMA’s criticism of them for the use of IEDs.  Their reply was unconvincing; both naïve and clumsy.  Nevertheless, pinning the blame on the Taliban for specific incidents is not straightforward. 

The Taliban have replied to accusations of their use of IEDs killing civilians.  Following recent IED incidents involving many civilian casualties (but before the Faryab bomb attack on 26 Oct) the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued a public statement on 20 October, condemning the incident, which it blamed on Taliban use of pressure plate explosive devices:

“20 October 2012 The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) condemns the killing of at least 18 women in Dawlatabad District, Balkh on 19 October 2012. The deaths occurred early in the morning when a civilian bus taking guests to a wedding celebration drove over a pressure plate improvised explosive device (IED) planted on a busy public road. Another 15 civilians were injured, including six children, seven women and two men. No combatant casualties were reported…Taliban operatives active in Dawlatabad District, Balkh are suspected of planting the anti-personnel landmine-like pressure plate IED, which is consistent with documented patterns and tactics of choice by the Taliban. Although the Taliban through its leader Mullah Omar banned the use of anti-personnel landmines in 1998 denouncing such weapons as “un-Islamic” and “anti-human”, anti-Government elements continue to use these landmine-like IEDs with devastating harm to civilians…UNAMA calls on the Taliban leadership to publicly reiterate a ban on these weapons and to stop their use…”

On their official website, the Taliban have digested this criticism and responded:

Reaction of Islamic Emirate regarding accusations of UNAMA about explosive devices

Monday, 06 Dzulhijjah 1433

Monday, 22 October 2012 11:03

Officials of UNAMA in Kabul once again remarked about rise in civilian casualties due to explosive devices and leveled accusations against the Mujahideen even though everyone is aware that the issue of civilian casualties is propagated by UNAMA and other western institutes only for their own malicious goals and importance is placed on vested interests instead of distress about the life and death of civilians. The real reason behind this propaganda is to try and stop the lethal blows handed by Mujahideen to the foreign invaders using landmines despite the fact that our defenseless nation has very limited tools to counter the advanced and indiscriminate weapons deployed by the enemy.

Instead of jointly working with the Islamic Emirate on civilian casualties specifically regarding those caused by landmines, UNAMA has repeatedly produced and distribute one-sided reports in the interest of America and westerners.

We clearly want to state that our Mujahideen never place live landmines in any part of the country but each mine is controlled by a remote and detonated on military targets only. On the other hand, those suspicious explosions which occur on main roads and target civilian buses and other vehicles are the works of our enemy in direct cooperation which CIA through which they want to defame our Mujahideen, an example of which is the saddening incident of Balkh province’s Dawlatabad district which occurred a few days earlier. On the other hand, there are also old unexploded ordinances scattered throughout our country which every now and then detonate on civilians. Similarly, personal and family feuds in some parts of the country are also reasons behind such incidents to disturb weddings and other social gatherings therefore blaming Mujahideen for all incidents is in itself injustice and unacceptable accusation.

If UNAMA really cares about civilian casualties then it should have taken practical steps for its prevention; condemned brutal actions of NATO; questioned torture and other inhumane practices inside prisons; and denounced America for razing thousands of hectares of greenery and orchards in Panjwai and Zhari districts as well as in other parts of the country however UNAMA has failed in doing these for unspecified reasons. Ignoring the mentioned issues only validates our argument that the issue of civilian casualties in intentionally being used as a propaganda tool and the loss of civilian life and property holds no significance for them.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not liable for any incident or blast which causes only civilian casualties without having any apparent military objective and especially regarding which our spokesmen show a clear cut reaction.

Analysis and Outlook

I guess the first point to make should be addressed to those who still think the Taliban’s propaganda machine is sophisticated and effective.  The Taliban’s public approach to this issue looks very naïve, dominated by immature denials and denouncements – a default setting of “its all a plot against us”.  I suspect their credibility would take a significant lurch upwards if they were, once in a while, able to acknowledge, explain and apologise for an error.  But this is perhaps beside the point.  They claim to have perfect control over these weapons systems:

“…our Mujahideen never place live landmines in any part of the country but each mine is controlled by a remote and detonated on military targets only. On the other hand, those suspicious explosions which occur on main roads and target civilian buses and other vehicles are the works of our enemy…”

This in itself may be sufficient reason to disbelieve their attempt to explain “reality”.  But there are some interesting angles worth bearing in mind on this issue before we all career down the “it was the Taliban wot done it” route.

The Taliban are painfully aware of the need to keep a credible “hearts and minds” public image afloat – all the public keynote statements from Mullah Omar return to this theme – the need to avoid civilian casualties.  This from Mullah Omar’s most recent Eid address:

“…pay full attention to the prevention of civilian casualties. The enemy has tried and is trying to blame the Mujahideen for the civilian casualties.”

They need to maintain this narrative, but they struggle to do it.  They also have a track record of claiming, then denying, attacks once it becomes apparent just how many civilians have been killed and injured.  At the same time, in the statement about IEDs, they essentially admit that they have to use such weapons systems because they do not have many other effective weapons systems – that the IED is the best system they have:

“…our defenseless nation has very limited tools to counter the advanced and indiscriminate weapons deployed by the enemy…”

Their only defence appears to be: “we are never inaccurate when we detonate a bomb and the CIA do the ones that kill civilians”.

With each atrocity incident like this, I wonder who actually investigates the attack?  I mean, who cordons off the area off, gathers evidence, takes witness statements – the forensic angle?  I suspect none of these incidents are ever actually properly investigated or proper reports files.  My informed guess is that the Afghan police are too busy learning to be counter-insurgents.  Therefore, perhaps to be able to point the finger at the Taliban would legally be very difficult.  Can we assume that the UNAMA statement has been crafted based on an informed report that points convincingly to Taliban involvement?  (I understand that the Red Cross actually compiles detailed reports on the impact of such attacks and passes this to the Taliban).  A secondary aspect of this is the notion that it will probably become harder to get accurate information regarding incidents such as this as the international presence dwindles over the coming years.  Reliance will increasingly be put upon local government and security officials.

On top of this, (cliché alert) the Taliban is not a monolith (cliché over).  In fact, it has most likely become more fragmented with the surge of “kill/capture” activities ISAF has been engaged in over the last few years.  Leadership on the ground is probably younger and more radical than before.  Contact with central command – i.e. the Taliban Quetta Shura grouping in Pakistan – is likely to be more sporadic.  In short, small groups on the ground are probably doing what it takes to kill Afghan government and foreign force representatives and attention to the finer details of collateral damage will be glossed over; discipline perhaps lacking, and “rules of engagement” (in the loosest possible sense) widely varied between groups.  This means, the Taliban leadership may genuinely be trying to rein in rogue attacks but struggles with command and control inside Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, and given the absence of proper investigation, I think it is highly plausible that many IED detonations are unfairly attributed to the Taliban each year.  Other actors could certainly be at work (criminals, warlords, narco-traffickers, etc) – for whom instability enables them to ply their trade.  We should also factor in the hundreds and thousands of pieces of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) that littered the country from last century’s conflicts and also the new pieces that are being donated by all protagonists.  Each unfair (from the Taliban’s perspective) accusation merely entrenches the Taliban further, confirming their fears and paranoia.

I would still conclude that these incidents are very often conducted by members of one of the insurgencies operating in Afghanistan and it is therefore at least very plausible that the Balkh and Faryab bombings are linked to the insurgency in some way.  However, we ought also to consider some of the angles I have tried to outline above.

My parting shot is the intriguing reference made in the Taliban rebuttal:

“Instead of jointly working with the Islamic Emirate on civilian casualties specifically regarding those caused by landmines, UNAMA has repeatedly produced and distribute one-sided reports in the interest of America and westerners.”

Fascinatingly, this is not even the first time the Taliban have suggested jointly working with international groups – they have even suggested working with ISAF.  Working jointly with the Taliban on anything would be a small step forward for confidence-building measures – unless you still think the Taliban can be decisively and militarily defeated, of course.  Why can the international community not call their bluff and offer to take them up on a joint IED investigation commission?  Face to face dialogue, new avenues of contact, opportunities to develop and explore other joint work…

A propaganda defeat for the Taliban if they back track and a victory for slow steps to reconciliation if they take part?

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