A Report from the Field: Gauging the Impact of Taliban Suicide Bombing

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 10

The following study is based on field research carried out in the summers of 2003, 2005 and the spring of 2007 in 15 Afghan provinces including: Paktia, Nangarhar (Jalalabad), Panjshir, Balkh (Mazar-i-Sharif), Takhar, Bamiyan, Kabul and Herat. Specific assistance was granted by the United Nations, the U.S. military, Hekmat Karzai’s Center for Afghan Peace Studies as well as numerous NGO members and average Afghans who chose to remain anonymous.

In the aftermath of the toppling of the Taliban, Kabul, which has tremendous significance as a symbol of authority for those who aspire to rule Afghanistan, was the primary target of the Taliban’s suicide bombing campaign. The initial sporadic attacks—which included an attack on a German International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy and foreigners in an antique-selling street known as “Chicken Street” that is popular with Afghanistan’s rare “tourists”—rattled foreigners living in Afghanistan and presaged things to come. The United Nations, for example, subsequently forbade its workers from visiting Chicken Street. ISAF and U.S. convoys appeared to be on edge as they moved through the streets as early as 2003, long before the real suicide bombing campaign began. The initial wave of bombings from 2002-2005 was the Taliban’s way of “throwing down the gauntlet” and demonstrating that the Hamid Karzai government could not uphold its promise of security to the people in the capital.

Nevertheless, for most Kabulis who have a much higher threshold for violence than Westerners who have not lived through two-and-a-half decades of war, life went on. Kabul’s population skyrocketed; restaurants and modern steel and glass buildings sprang up; “Roshan” cell phones began to appear in the hands of young women who wore head scarves instead of burqas; traffic jams materialized; and Kabulis threw themselves into taking advantage of the new climate of security to rebuild their lives. Between 2003 and 2005, Afghans, including General Rashid Dostum who was the target of one such bombing, unanimously dismissed the suicide bombings as being the work of “die hards,” “foreigners,” “Arabs” and, most importantly, “Pakistanis” [1]. Many claimed that the Afghan Taliban, for all its faults, would not engage in suicide attacks and President Karzai himself proclaimed that the “Sons of Afghanistan” would never carry out such “un-Islamic” actions.

Today, however, there is a perceptible shift in opinion in Kabul that stems from the fact that Kabul has been the target of more than two dozen suicide attacks since 2005. Nevertheless, progress in the capital, which in and of itself is a bubble removed from the provinces, especially those in the south, has continued apace despite the fact that these random attacks are clearly beginning to take their toll. Among the many stoic Kabulis, there is a palpable sense of fear and acceptance of the fact that fellow Afghans are increasingly responsible for the carnage that takes its toll primarily on civilians. A driver in Kabul, for example, had the disconcerting habit of pointing out to his passenger the spots where suicide bombings had taken place in recent months [2]. He seemed to be consumed by the fear of becoming a victim himself.

His fear is shared by many Kabulis, especially those who work for Western companies that appeared to be benefiting the most from post-Taliban development [3]. Some Westernized Afghans make a point of consciously mixing up their schedules so as not to have predictable travel patterns that could be picked up by Taliban spies. It is rumored that Afghan governor Abdul Hakim Taniwal was sent pictures of his movements by the Taliban before he was killed by a suicide bomber in Gardez in September 2006 [4]. Urban myths of suicide bombers are not surprisingly widespread. One such story describes a taxi driver who picked up a passenger for a journey from Kabul to an outlying city only to find out that his passenger was a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-filled vest. Luckily for the taxi driver, his passenger failed to see any ISAF targets on their journey.

Foreigners also seem to have reacted to real or perceived threats by adopting a heightened sense of awareness and many have adopted robust security procedures. The few Western-style restaurants and clubs in the city are protected by sand-bagged entrances and guarded by soldiers with metal detectors. Foreigners rarely utilize taxis or walk the streets. While a few travel freely around Kabul on foot or by taxi, many foreigners working for NGOs are forbidden from doing so.

The greatest obstacle facing Western researchers in Kabul is getting out of the city to the south of the country along the newly paved Kabul-Kandahar highway. Traveling the highway by car is an open invitation for becoming a target of a Taliban suicide bombing or kidnapping [5]. Astoundingly, foreigners traveling between the capital and Afghanistan’s second largest city have to rely on air transport due to the insecurity on this vital section of the Afghan “ring road” (a road that, ironically enough, was rebuilt with Western aid money). Average Afghans consider it foolhardy to travel to such “hot zones” as Gardez and villages around Jalalabad without any protection. Coalition convoys traveling on these provincial roads are increasingly wary of road-side pedestrians using cell phones when they pass for fear that they are passing on their itineraries to militants. Coalition troops have even found that children using remote-controlled toy cars on the road are doing so to test the strength of their electronic counter-measures designed to scramble bomb wiring and IED transmission signals.

Signs of Hope

While there is little that someone on foot or driving in a “soft-skinned” vehicle can do to save themselves from a determined suicide bomber, the Karzai government and its coalition supporters have made some headway in defeating them. Coalition troops and the National Directorate of Security have, for example, broken up numerous suicide cells (usually a trainer, bomb-maker, spotter and the bomber himself). Additionally, average Afghans have prevented suicide bombings on numerous occasions by apprehending bombers themselves [6].

The following account recorded by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) of Afghans proactively preventing a suicide bombing is certainly heartening: “On March 4, Zabul Province, Qalat District, at approximately 1520 hours local, shopkeepers in the bazaar area identified, arrested and subsequently severely beat a man carrying a BBIED [Body-Borne Improvised Explosive Device]. After being handed over to the ANP [Afghan National Police] and receiving treatment at the hospital, the man claimed to be part of a three-man suicide team that had entered Qalat City” [7]. A reliable source that chose to remain anonymous told the most harrowing story of a suicide bomber who pulled up to a gas station driving a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. When the gas station attendant saw the suspicious wiring in the car, he and another worker jumped the bomber, fought with him to prevent him from detonating his device in a gas station filled with civilians and eventually subdued him.

While the Karzai administration can be faulted for often failing to provide security for those who stand up to the Taliban, many clearly continue to do so regardless of the cost. For example, in the Pashtun areas of the southeast, a fatwa-decree written by 30 ulema/religious scholars in Khost proclaimed that “suicide is strongly prohibited by Islam. Nobody is allowed to assassinate himself by any means. Allah says ‘don’t kill yourselves.’ Abi Horrira says that the Prophet, peace be upon him, says ‘The one who jumps down from a mountain and kills himself will be put in hell forever'” [8].

Civilians are not the only ones who remain vigilant. The ANP has saturated the capital with thousands of heavily armed policemen. Entry to the capital has now been channeled through police checkpoints and ANP members have set up road blocks throughout the city where they carry out random searches of vehicles. As the front-line defense in the war against suicide bombers, the ANP, who man dangerously exposed positions, have suffered the brunt of the Taliban’s attacks. They often sustain more casualties than the Afghan National Army.

There are other signs of hope which distinguish the campaign in Afghanistan from that of Iraq—most notably, the reluctance of Afghan insurgents to target the United Nations. The United Nations, which has a long history of neutrality in Afghanistan, stemming from its period of relief work during the Afghan Civil War and the Taliban period, is perhaps one of the most exposed organizations in Afghanistan. There are arguably more white UN vehicles on the road on any given day than coalition military vehicles. Unlike Iraq, however, where the United Nations has been deliberately targeted, the Taliban appear to have recognized the UN’s neutrality. They appear to accept its positive role as a mediator and source of assistance in improving the lives of average Afghans (even the Taliban’s). For this reason, it appears that they avoid targeting its vehicles and bases with suicide attacks [9].

The ethnic-sectarian strain to the suicide bombing campaign in Iraq, which often supersedes the targeting of foreign troops, is also completely absent in Afghanistan. While the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been involved in anti-Shiite suicide bombings in the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, this trend has not appeared in Afghanistan. Even though the ANP presence in the Shiite Hazara regions around Bamiyan (not to mention the Panjshir Valley, and the plains of Turkistan) was minimal, traveling appears safe [10]. Although there have been suicide bombings in areas with pro-Taliban Pashtun pockets in the north and west, such as the recent bombings in Kunduz and Herat, there have been no deliberate attacks on the Shiite Hazara areas to date. For both logistical and strategic reasons, the Taliban appear to have largely focused its suicide terrorism operations on the Pashtun belt and the symbolically important capital despite their history of oppression against Hazaras and, to a lesser extent, minorities of the north.

The Taliban’s much-hyped campaign to employ “hundreds” if not “thousands” of suicide bombers against Afghanistan this spring has not come to pass. Furthermore, with the death of Mullah Dadullah, the operational Taliban commander who has made the most use of suicide bombing, there is cause for hope even though many people continue to live their lives under the shadow of this new and unpredictable threat.


1. Author interviews with Afghan citizens and with General Rashid Dostum, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2003 and 2005.

2. Author interview with driver, Kabul, Afghanistan, April-May 2007.

3. Author interviews with Afghan citizens, Kabul, Afghanistan, April-May 2007.

4. Author interview, Kabul, Afghanistan, April-May 2007.

5. Author’s personal experience in attempting to travel by car to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

6. The media widely reported the case of one Afghan who heroically subdued a suicide bomber attempting to enter a U.S. base in January 2007. See USA Today, March 8, 2007.

7. UNAMA Field Report, March 4, 2007.

8. “Sentence Judgment (Fitwa) of the Religious Scholars of Khost Province,” November 21, 2006.

9. The recent case where a UN vehicle carrying Nepalese soldiers was hit by an IED was said to be related to drug cartels in the region and not to the Taliban.

10. Author’s personal evaluation from traveling in the Shiite Hazara regions around Bamiyan, the Panjshir Valley and the plains of Turkistan.