ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — U.S. intelligence officials say they have intercepted new orders from the Taliban's spiritual leader that call on insurgents to target women and Afghan civilians helping American-led forces.
One year after issuing a detailed code of conduct that called on Taliban fighters to protect Afghan civilians, NATO officials say, Mullah Omar has issued new directives to his commanders that appear to represent a tougher stance.
Release of the directives comes as Afghan and U.S.-led forces are preparing for a looming new military confrontation with insurgents in the Taliban's spiritual heartland of Kandahar province.
A Taliban spokesman dismissed the report as American propaganda and some Afghan analysts expressed doubts that the Taliban leader would specifically single out Afghan women as targets.
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"This sounds weird, but possible," said Sami Kovanen, senior Information Analyst for Indicium Consulting, a Kabul-based research analyst firm. "I have not heard anything like this before and have not seen incidents like this."
Civilian deaths are a potent issue in the Afghan war.
Last year, Mullah Omar released a detailed rulebook that called on Taliban fighters to minimize civilian casualties and choose suicide attacks carefully to avoid needless deaths.
At the time, the code of conduct was seen as an attempt by the Taliban leadership to win over Afghans by actively working to protect civilians.
Over the past year, the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan also has issued new military rules meant to contain civilian deaths.
As the Taliban ramped up its insurgent campaign this spring, U.S. intelligence officials said that Mullah Omar issued his new directives to field commanders.
The orders call on fighters to "capture and kill any Afghan women who are helping or providing information to the coalition forces" and to target Afghans working with the Afghan government and U.S.-led military.
In the first six months of this year, about 1,074 civilians were killed in Afghanistan, according to the Afghan Rights Monitor, an independent research firm.
Taliban fighters and their allies were responsible for 60 percent of the deaths, according to the report. Afghan government forces and members of the international military coalition were responsible for about 30 percent of the civilian deaths.
The single most deadly incident took place last month when a young suicide bomber killed 40 civilians — including young boys — at a wedding party in Arghandab. Some of the victims had been part of an anti-Taliban force operating in the area, which may have made them a particular target of the bombing.
"This sort of outright targeting of innocent Afghan men and women working for the betterment of their country flies in the face of any alleged 'code of conduct'
propaganda that the Taliban may have produced for public consumption," said U.S. Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
One top NATO official in Afghanistan said that the military coalition's focus on protecting major population centers had forced the Taliban to bring the fight into densely populated areas.
"In the past, we were operating in the hinterlands," said the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could more freely discuss the orders. "Now we're staying inside the population — it's a risk they are taking and they're screwing it up. Their own tactics are working against them."
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusef rejected the report as American disinformation.
"This kind article has not been issued by the supreme leader of the Taliban to the media yet," he said. "This is something that the infidels are making up."
Reports of the change in Taliban tactics comes as Afghan and American-led soldiers are poised to launch a new offensive against insurgents in Arghandab, the fertile valley on the edge of Kandahar city.
On Saturday, the top military leaders held a two-hour meeting in Arghandab with their Afghan partners to fine-tune plans to target an estimated 150 to 200 hardcore insurgents who have destabilized the river valley.
Military officials and Afghan leaders in Kandahar said they intend to put Taliban fighters on the defensive before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in four weeks.
"Arghandab — right now 50 percent, plus or minus — is under government control," said U.S, Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, the director of coalition operations in southern Afghanistan, before the meeting. "We would really like to — and I think it's feasible — by the time Ramadan comes around, have it at 80-85 percent."
But U.K. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, sought to dampen expectations about what might be accomplished by the beginning of Ramadan.
"These things take time and you've got to persuade people," said Carter, who estimated that the Afghan government currently had control over 20-to-40 percent of Arghandab. "I'm not expecting to see anything particularly different by Ramadan."
Dion Nissenbaum reported from Arghandab. McClatchy special correspondent Saeed Shah reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. McClatchy special correspondent Muhib Habibi contributed to this report from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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