The information for this article came from a five-month study of suicide bombings from 2001 to 2007 in Afghanistan. No suicide bombing was listed in the study unless it was corroborated by numerous sources. Sources varied from coalition countries’ press releases, open media, al-Qaeda/Taliban websites, U.S. military sources and Afghan news agencies. While the sample analysis of 158 attacks is not definitive, its overall findings are indicative of general Taliban targeting trends.
The recent suicide bombing attack on Bagram Air Base, which killed between 15-23 people during the visit of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, has highlighted the growing problem of suicide bombers in Afghanistan. While the United States has dismissed the Taliban’s claims that they attacked Bagram in an effort to assassinate Cheney, the targeting of a U.S. base fits previous Taliban targeting patterns.
Prior to the Bagram incident, U.S. military and government sources routinely spoke of the “Iraqification” of the Afghan conflict. Recent statistics from U.S. and Afghan agencies seem to support this claim. While Afghanistan had 25 suicide bombings in 2005, in 2006 it experienced as many as 139 suicide attacks. Recent media images from Afghanistan of bombed buses, shattered markets and burnt out U.S. Humvees further support the notion that the carnage that has shredded the fabric of Iraqi society has come to the so-called “Forgotten War” in Afghanistan.
If taken at face value, these claims represent a disastrous, if unintended side effect of the invasion of Iraq and bode ill for the upcoming year. Yet despite the mounting evidence that the Iraqi invasion has destabilized Afghanistan via the sharing of Iraqi tactics with Afghan insurgents, the suicide bombing campaign in Afghanistan has its own specific dynamics. It is little noticed local characteristics that distinguish suicide bombing in Afghanistan from that in the Iraqi theater.
2007: Suicide Bombings…or Suicide?
An analysis of the Taliban’s 2007 suicide campaign makes some of these differences glaringly obvious. At first blush, this year’s statistics seem to support the notion that suicide bombers are ramping up their attacks in an effort to cause as much Iraqi-style carnage as possible. While it is only seven weeks into the new year, there have already been 22 suicide bombings (or attempts) in Afghanistan. This seems to be a fulfillment of Mullah Hayat Khan’s promise to use 2,000 suicide bombers to make 2007 “the bloodiest year” in Afghanistan (al-Jazeera, January 27). Yet a deeper analysis of the suicide bombing attacks carried out since January 1 reveals an altogether different picture.
Astoundingly, of the 22 attacks carried out this year, in 16 cases the only fatality has been the suicide bomber himself. In the 17th case, the suicide bomber succeeded in killing himself and one policeman. In two other cases, the suicide bomber was arrested or shot. This translates to 19 Taliban suicide bombers for one Afghan policeman, hardly an inspiring kill ratio for would-be-suicide bombers. In most of these cases, the suicide bombers attacked foreign convoys on foot or in cars and were unable to inflict casualties on their targets. Typically, the suicide bombers’ explosives went off prematurely or their bombs failed to kill coalition troops driving in heavily armored vehicles.
In only three of the 22 cases for 2007 were there notable fatalities. In the first successful case, a suicide bomber killed two Afghan policemen and eight civilians (Camp Salerno, Khost, January 23). In the second case, three policemen were killed (Zherai District, Khost, February 4). In the third case, the February 27 attack on Bagram Air Base while Cheney was visiting, the bomber succeeded in killing 15-23 people (including two to three coalition soldiers). Such numbers hardly compare to Iraq where suicide bombers often carry out synchronized attacks that regularly kill anywhere from 60 to 130 people. Such uninspiring statistics beg the question: what are Afghanistan’s suicide bombers doing wrong?
Taliban “Hard Targeting”
While the low death statistics certainly speak to the Taliban bombers’ general ineptitude, part of the answer also lies in their targeting patterns which differ from those in Iraq. Iraqi suicide bombers from such jihadi groups as Ansar al-Sunnah and al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia frequently seek to inflict high casualty rates by attacking soft targets, such as crowded markets. Their objective is to cause as much bloodshed as possible, incite sectarian violence and destroy U.S. efforts to construct civil society in Iraq. Afghan suicide bombers, on the other hand, appear to have different objectives and have focused almost exclusively on hard targets (government, police, military). In 2007, for example, the Taliban have attacked foreign or Afghan military/police targets in 16 of their 22 bombings (in three cases the target was undetermined).
This in-depth analysis of 158 Afghan suicide bombings since 2001 shows that this is no anomaly and demonstrates an important point: in only eight of the 158 suicide attacks from 2001-2007 did civilians appear to be the direct target of Afghan bombers. Further scrutiny of these eight civilian attacks reveals an important fact. In two of these instances, the Taliban apologized for inflicting civilian casualties and in one case a Taliban spokesmen actually denied involvement. In four other cases the suicide bombers seem to have been targeting passing military convoys or governmental representatives in crowds; therefore, the high civilian casualties appear to have been unintended “collateral damage.” In only two instances were civilians clearly the target of Afghan suicide bombers.
These findings tell us volumes about the Taliban’s overall strategy in employing suicide bombing as a tactic. Far from imitating Iraqi insurgent tactics, the Taliban are trying to avoid losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by needlessly killing civilians.
Long-Term Taliban Strategy
While more targeted than the Iraqi suicide bombing campaign, the Taliban suicide bombing operations nonetheless share one key objective with their Iraqi counterparts: to disrupt the local “infidel proxy” government’s efforts to bring security to contested provinces. In Iraq, this translates to fighting the Maliki government for Anbar Province. In Afghanistan, it means fighting the Karzai government for Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Helmand and, most importantly, Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban. Kandahar has been the scene of the greatest number of suicide bombings and is the key to understanding Taliban strategy. The Taliban movement sprang from Kandahar by offering the war weary Kandahari Pashtuns the one thing the mujahideen could not: security. While actively contesting the Karzai government for control of its natal territory, the current Taliban leadership does not want to be seen as destroying the local tribes’ sense of security. The Taliban Shura knows from its own past experience that this would drive those Pashtun tribes sitting on the fence into the arms of the Karzai government.
For this reason, the Taliban merely aim to deprive the Karzai government and its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) sponsors of their ability to offer the people security. The Taliban know all too well that NATO-backed efforts to lay roads, build schools, drill wells and outlaw banditry represent the greatest threat to their movement. For this reason, they have commenced an insurgent campaign which aims to disrupt ISAF’s efforts to stabilize the south and bring security to the people.
Nothing in the Taliban/al-Qaeda arsenal seems to have been as effective as a shock weapon against the militarily superior Afghan National Army and ISAF/U.S. troops as suicide bombers. One cannot overestimate the psychological damage that this asymmetric tactic has had on ISAF troops who have handily bested their Taliban opponents in pitched battles. After Canadian ISAF troops delivering candy to children were targeted for suicide attacks, their skittish patrols began to attach speakers to their vehicles warning Afghans in Pashto to stay away. In a couple of instances, ISAF troops that have been targeted by suicide bombers have subsequently overreacted and shot innocent Afghan bystanders. Dutch ISAF troops, for example, have refused to be deployed in areas where suicide bombing is prevalent.
On many levels, the suicide bombing campaign does seem to have been successful. It has disrupted the coalition’s efforts to interact with local populations and to win the race to bring security to contested provinces. Yet the Taliban are clearly playing a dangerous game, and this author’s findings back up the Pentagon’s claim that as many as 84% of the victims of suicide bombings in Afghanistan are civilians . In several instances, Afghan suicide bombers have attacked foreign military convoys and succeeded in killing more than a dozen civilians and only one or two soldiers . On other occasions, suicide bombers have killed or wounded innocent bystanders in mosques, hospitals, restaurants, or waiting for visas to partake in the Hajj. In the recent attack on Bagram Air Base, the vast majority of victims were once again civilians, and hundreds came to mourn their deaths. Not surprisingly, this has caused widespread resentment and protests in several Afghan cities.
Even in the best of circumstances, suicide bombing is not a precise technique and Afghanistan’s feckless bombers seem far better at killing themselves and Afghan civilians than foreign troops. Far more coalition troops in Afghanistan have died from IEDs, gunfire, RPG attacks and other conventional methods than they have from suicide bombs. One Afghan study of the bloody 2006 campaign has found that suicide bombings in that year took 212 civilian lives, while leading to the death of only 12 foreign soldiers .
In light of the above, it seems clear that the Taliban will continue to employ suicide bombings in the upcoming year as a disruptive shock tactic. While the Taliban may get the occasional public relations coup, as in the seemingly coincidental attack on Bagram while Cheney was visiting, the main victims will continue to be the very people the Taliban are trying to win over, along with the suicide bombers themselves. As coalition troops continue to use close air support and superior artillery firepower to flush Taliban insurgents out of provinces like Kandahar, the real contest for the hearts and minds of the local population for 2007 may well hinge on the competing sides’ “collateral damage” statistics.
1. “Afghan Suicide Bombings Take Mostly Civilian Toll,” http://www.pentagon.mil/news/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=679.
2. These instances include, among others: Kandahar, December 7, 2006; Kabul, September 18, 2006; Kabul, September 8, 2006.
3. “Afghanistan’s Record of Suicide Attacks in 2006,” http://www.paktribune.com/news/index.shtml?165055.