Afghanistan’s Taliban has announced it will begin safeguarding “national [infrastructure] projects which are in the interest of the people,” identifying the US$3 billion Mes Aynak copper ore deposits in Logar province as one of their wish-list protection projects

Members of the Taliban stand at the site of the execution of three men in Ghazni Province April 18, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

That’s an ironic about-face for the insurgent group synonymous with years of atrocity, mayhem, and destruction, including attacks on the country’s electrical power grid. But the Taliban’s interest in protecting infrastructure rather than destroying it is a hopeful signal given the country’s desperate need for infrastructure development to boost a war-ravaged economy in which 39 percent of Afghans live in poverty and 23 percent are unemployed. Those disastrous economic indicators have been exacerbated by insecurity created by both corruption and an intensifying Taliban insurgency that is widening its control in parts of the country.

But the Taliban’s record in honoring its commitments to limiting the scope and targets of its attacks makes the likelihood of the group switching gears from destroying infrastructure to protecting it an open question. After all, despite the Taliban’s vow that it will “safeguard and protect the lives and properties of the civilian people,” the latest update from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) found that the Taliban remain responsible for most civilian casualties in the country’s long-running armed conflict. Although the Taliban claims that protecting civilians is one of their main aims, the armed group continues to pursue a strategy of suicide bombings against civilians and attacks on populated areas. Government forces and groups who affiliate with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) also inflict rising numbers of civilian casualties.

Infrastructure development and protection is the responsibility of the Afghan government. The Taliban should instead demonstrate its concern for “the interest of the people” by abiding by the laws of war and immediately ceasing operations that target Afghan civilians.