Blood cloud

By targeting civilians, the Taliban seek to deter unwanted behaviour, such as defection to the enemy’s camp

Blood cloud

The question is why the Taliban choose to target the civilian population during a civil war. In recent years, different insurgent groups around the world have been responsible for the lion’s share of violence against civilians. This is puzzling, since the majority of these groups target the very people they allegedly represent, and whose support and allegiance is of utmost importance in the armed struggle. A recent theory by Lisa Hultman suggests that killing civilians is a conflict strategy, and causally linked to insurgent groups’ overall performance in hurting the government. She argues that by targeting civilians, the insurgents are trying to affect the government. I find that her theory is insufficient in accounting for the blood-cloud and variance found in Taliban violence.

Violence perpetrated by militant groups proposes that civil war violence is a social process, a method, which perpetrators employ to further their ends. It is closely linked to conflict dynamics. By resorting to violence, the Taliban aim to influence other actors’ behaviour. Violence becomes a means for manipulation. Where the two strands of this hypothesis differ is in claiming which actor’s behaviour the Taliban are trying to manipulate. In his seminal work, Stathis Kalyvas argues that the ultimate goal for which militants employ violence is influencing the civilian population and their behaviour. Here violence would be seen as an instrument of the Taliban to coerce civilians into compliance on the one hand, and to deter unwanted behaviour on the other. Political analysts maintain, however, that violence is seldom a simple way to achieve strategic goals, but is contingent on the circumstances in which it is carried out. The other theory developed by Lisa Hultman provides a rationalist explanation for insurgent violence. She proposes that rather than focusing on the people, what insurgent groups are striving to do is to affect the government and its policies. She notes that internal conflicts are often characterised by asymmetry, where insurgents are the weaker parties, sometimes going to extreme lengths to bring about change. Internal conflicts are bargaining processes, wherein insurgents resort to violence against civilians when all other means of hurting the government are frustrated. As the democratic government is ultimately responsible for its citizens and their wellbeing, an attack against civilians is an attack against the government. By targeting civilians, insurgents compensate for their inability to cause damage to the government on the battlefield. The worse the insurgents fare in hurting the government by conventional means, the higher the numbers of civilians are killed.

Taking these criteria into consideration, February 12, 2012 and January 2013 are marked as cases for comparison. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had struck clandestine peace deals with the Pakistani establishment before the start of an offensive, as per which the Taliban gave a commitment that they would not attack Pakistani security forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Shortly afterwards, a spring offensive was launched with multiple attacks targeting both civilian and military personnel in Pakistan, while in Afghanistan western embassies, NATO headquarters, as well as the parliament building in Kabul were attacked. As the winter of 2013-14 approached, TTP spokesmen made another offer of dialogue to the government as the group needed time to reorganise. These cases are positioned at three separate junctures of the Pakistan--TTP conflict, each preceded by a promising peace process. In addition to being attacks that took place in the wake of high-profile negotiation processes, what these cases have in common is that the talks between the government and the TTP had collapsed, and the parties had resumed fighting. In each case the conflict thereby escalated. Further, the specific years that were mentioned display higher levels of violence in general, most likely due to the fact that talks had failed and fighting had resumed.

Hultman is mainly concerned with magnitude of violence; her point of departure is sheer numbers. Her theory does not account for differences in patterns, such as who is killed by whom, where and how. It can be, however, concluded that her theory is able to account for the drastic decrease in the number of civilians killed between the first and the second case. Furthermore, her theory indeed seems to be able to explain the killings of civilians. Observations point out that the rationale for targeting the civilians is in fact to influence the government and its settlement policies in particular. As pointed out earlier in this article, socio-political analysis suggests that the interaction of interest in civil war violence is between the Taliban and civilians. By targeting civilians, the Taliban seek to deter unwanted behaviour, such as defection to the enemy’s camp. The type of violence seen among Taliban groups is selective or indiscriminate and depends on the level of territorial control. The higher the level of Taliban control, the less likely it is that they will resort to violence; they simply do not need to use violence to ensure popular support and obedience if they are in full control. Conversely, the lower the level of Taliban control, the less likely it is that they will resort to selective violence, and it is more likely that their violence will be indiscriminate. Analysts propose that under fragmented control, violence tends to be indiscriminate and both selective and indiscriminate violence are, in principle, instrumental forms of violence aiming to generate collaboration via deterrence. Another suggestion remains that the impetus for violence is to affect the behaviour of civilians. It seems correct to consider that desire of ultimate control spawns intra-factional violence among the TTP, which becomes a prerequisite for targeting disgruntled members selectively on an individual basis or in groups. Such violence ricochets off from their sub-factional disputes and if the TTP groups are not in control, they are likely to target civilians randomly in order to demonstrate their authority to each other in the absence of specific information about defectors and wrongdoers.

A critical and sensitive observation is the role ethnicity plays in TTP violence. Strategic considerations underpinning violence are diverse, and vary according to which ethnic group and individual is victimised. An interesting conclusion derived from such observations is that when the TTP is targeting Shiite Muslims, its aim is not to affect the Pakistan government, but rather these constituents’ behaviour. Conversely, by targeting Shiites the TTP is most likely aiming to affect the government. Violence is used for multiple purposes, and varies not only according to conflict intensity but also according to relations between civilians and the Taliban. Violence differs and transforms itself in accordance with the political geography of the conflict and is contingent on the levels of control. Moreover, in a society where ethnic identities have become politicised, the reasons for and patterns that violence takes may differ depending on the targets’ perceived ethnic affiliation. Scholars argue that violence is a social phenomenon worth analysing in its own right. Both magnitude and patterns of violence invoke different kinds of observations, dynamics and motivations. Therefore, instead of competing, these theories explain different aspects of the cases, and therefore can potentially be combined.What these lines do show is that by resorting to violence, the Taliban might be striving to affect both the government and the civilian population.


The writer is a member of the Diplomate American Board of Medical Psychotherapists Dip.Soc Studies, member Int’l Association of Forensic Criminologists, associate professor Psychiatry and consultant Forensic Psychiatrist at the Huntercombe Group United Kingdom. He can be reached at