Taliban leaders in Pakistan are pressing their soldiers in Afghanistan to step up attacks but minimize civilian casualties, a message that is dividing fighters from the leadership and may encourage some to quit the insurgency, a top Pentagon official said.
"That's creating a lot of tension," David Sedney, a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon, told USA TODAY.
Sedney said the Taliban leadership based in Quetta, Pakistan, is telling fighters not to cause civilian casualties, the vast majority of which are from mines buried by insurgents.
"The people back in Quetta are saying …'Don't you understand you're not supposed to do that,'" Sedney said. "The fighters are saying, 'You're telling us to keep fighting and we have no choice but to use those methods.'"
Sedney did not specify how the information was obtained, but the Pentagon generally gathers intelligence through a combination of interrogations, eavesdropping and surveillance.
In 2009, Taliban leader Mullah Omar released a "Code of Conduct" urging fighters to avoid civilian casualties. A 2012 report from the U.N. stated that in the first half of last year 3,099 civilians were killed or wounded from the fighting, 80% of which was blamed on insurgents. Ten percent were caused by Afghan forces.
Taliban fighters have directly targeted Afghan civilians for assisting U.S. and pro-government forces, but most civilian casualties are from the thousands of improvised explosive devices that the Taliban uses to blow up convoys and army patrols along roads and fields. Civilians can trigger the devices.
Sedney says some Taliban fighters are also resentful that that the burdens of fighting are not shared equally. Taliban soldiers have been the ones to confront the United States after it surged an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, while the leadership has remained across the border where there is little contact with military forces.
"The fighters over the last two years have suffered very large losses," Sedney said. "The contrast between that and the life of the leaders who are staying in Pakistan has become even greater."
Mark Jacobson, a former NATO official in Afghanistan now at the German Marshall Fund, agreed that there is tension between Taliban leaders in Pakistan sanctuaries and Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan.
"There was a high degree of confidence that was happening," he said. "Folks are seeking to exploit that."
The divisions within the ranks may make it more likely that fighters might seek a way out of the war, Sedney said.
"It's already clear that some parts of the Taliban are interested in a political solution," Sedney said.
As of now though a peace process has not "even really begun," U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, said recently. Some analysts warn that such a peace process may be impeded by scheduled U.S. troops withdrawals.
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, says the more the USA draws down forces, the less leverage it will have to press for a reconciliation between the Taliban and the pro-U.S. government in Kabul.
U.S. forces are down to 66,000 from a high of over 100,000; and President Obama has ordered most combat forces to be out by the end of 2014.
"This might be last year where we have a fair amount of political pressure to apply," O'Hanlon said.