In reaction to the despicable killing of over 100 school children in Pakistan whose only 'crime' was attending an army school at a time when the army was battling the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Afghan Taliban expressed 'sorrow over the tragedy and grief for the families of the victims.' The killing of innocent civilians, it said, is against Islamic principles. The Afghan Taliban has 'always condemned the killing of innocent people and children.'
This is of course true. Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has made it a frequent practice in his Eid Statements to proclaim the group does not kill civilians. But, as I have pointed out previously, the Afghan Taliban's definition of 'civilian' diverges from that accepted under international humanitarian law agreed upon by a majority of the civilized world, including Muslim states.
The Afghan Taliban continues this narrative because it needs to portray itself as an insurgency fighting foreign invaders and only really targeting those who deserve it. That the list of 'those who deserve it' is getting increasingly long is illustrated by another recent Taliban statement (by the same Zabiullah Mujahed who voiced the Taliban's rejection of what happened in Pakistan) about an 11 December 2014 suicide attack at a French cultural centre inside a school. The attack occurred during a production that was considered un-Islamic because it dealt with the trauma of – wait for it – suicide attacks:
Taking the opportunity, the Islamic Emirate warns all the (so called) media sources, and organizations working under the name of civil society, those who publish/show, organize demonstrations, meetings contrary to Islamic values, and spread anti-Islamic music, obscene acts and immorality in the community, and try to mislead the youth, that our Mujahideen will no longer tolerate this, and will uproot such activities through conducting similar actions, till the core of immorality is destroyed.
Data from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan continues to show a rise in civilian casualties in Afghanistan, a majority at the hands of the Afghan Taliban. Undeniably, Afghan National Security Forces, foreign forces and others also kill civilians, but if you look at the graph above, the facts speak pretty loud. According to the UN nearly 5000 civilian casualties (1564 deaths and 3289 injured) were reported in the first six months of 2014, a 17% increase of civilians killed over the same period in 2013. Of these, 74% are attributed to anti-government elements.
But according to the Taliban, this is all propaganda. The UN has no idea who real civilians are and never checks its facts, the Taliban says. Most people are killed by Afghan Nation Security Forces and international military, it argues. Or, in a concession by a high-ranking ex-Taliban minister, the civilian deaths are mistakes.
Regarding the Afghan Taliban's claim that it never targets children, this from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict in a May 2014 report:
At least 545 children were killed and 1,149 injured in 790 documented incidents. Child casualties increased by 30 per cent in 2013 compared with 2012. Armed opposition groups, including the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, were responsible for a majority (889) of the recorded child casualties.
In response to the 2013 UN report documenting civilian casualties, the Taliban reiterated that protecting civilians was part of its aim, and that it gives clear instructions to not carry out attacks of any nature near markets, schools and bus stations. But let's look at some more memorable (in the sense of weighing heavily on the psyche of the Afghan population) non-civilian killings:
- 14 July 2014: at least 42 people killed and dozens injured in a suicide attack at a busy market in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika province, local officials say.
- 23 November 2014: a suicide bomber kills at least 50 people, wounding another 63, at a volleyball match, again in Paktika province.
- 14 December 2014: IED on road to school in Nangarhar injures six students.
When the Taliban insurgency first emerged, I had some sympathy for it. The Taliban was excluded from the Bonn peace agreement, hunted down in many parts of the country and initially tried to respond to communities' dissatisfaction with the Afghan Government. But the Taliban has brought neither security nor justice, as it promised. It also opposes education and development, aiming to keep people out of the 21st century. Few Afghans want this, and few Afghans I have spoken to have bought into the propaganda that the Taliban does not kill civilians.
So let's not rejoice in a simple condemnation of a heinous attack in Pakistan by a group that does more or less the same at home in Afghanistan. Let's see it for what it is: propaganda. Until the Taliban's rhetoric starts matching its actions, peace talks will be empty. We can only find peace if the facts come out and all sides practice what they preach.