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What is behind the recent rise in suicide bombings in Afghanistan?
Several factors, experts say. The effectiveness of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001 forced militant groups in Afghanistan to adopt new tactics. U.S. and NATO forces, which can defend themselves against conventional attacks, remain vulnerable to suicide bombs, which cause maximum impact with minimal resources. "Suicide terror is more aptly described as a weapons system than a psychological state," says Colonel Christopher Langton, head of the defense analysis department at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It’s very cheap, it has a very sophisticated guidance system, and it causes huge damage." Afghan militants also saw how successful the tactic was against U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq and began copying it, experts say.
Have suicide bombings traditionally been used as a tactic in the country?
No, experts say. "Suicide is not a characteristic tactic of the Afghan people," Langton says. "They have a cultural aversion to it. They believe suicide is cowardly." Afghans, legendarily tough warriors, believe in coming back to fight another day, says Sam Zarifi, an Afghan specialist and deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. The antipathy to suicide is also religious: Suicide is considered a major sin in Islam, experts say. The body is seen as being given in trust by God, and committing suicide would be violating that trust and endangering one’s entry into Heaven. However, Langton says, the Taliban and other practitioners of radical Islam believe those who carry out suicide attacks against an enemy become martyrs who, after death, go directly to paradise to be met by dozens of virgins.
The Karzai government had promoted the idea of suicide bombing as un-Afghan by initially claiming that all the suicide bombings were carried out by foreigners, says Amin Tarzi, an Afghanistan and Iraq analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. However, "as of late, there has been proof that some of the recent suicide bombers were Afghan and Taliban," Tarzi says.
Why is it being used now?
"There was never really a need for suicide bombing before," Zarifi says. "It’s really a desperation tactic when the enemy’s defensive capabilities prohibit any other type of attack, as was the case in Israel, then Iraq, and now Afghanistan." Experts say two other factors contribute to the recent rise in suicide bombings:
- Efficiency. "The Taliban and others have clearly said, ’How do we strike at NATO and the U.S.?’" Langton says. "Suicide terror has been effective in Iraq, so militants in Afghanistan increasingly prepared it as [NATO] planned to increase its troop levels." NATO is planning to increase its Afghan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to about 16,000 soldiers this year, and the primary contributors to its Stage III deployment are Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia. These troops will go to the restive southern and southwestern provinces of Afghanistan, formerly controlled by U.S. troops, for the first time. Neo-Taliban militants are "shifting resources to the south right now because of NATO," Tarzi says.
- Drug money. Experts say the thriving trade of opium poppies—that accounts for nearly half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product—is now helping to pay for compensation to the families of Afghan suicide bombers, similar to the practice in the Palestinian Authority and elsewhere. This serves as an extra incentive for "young men with crazy ideas and no means of gaining a livelihood" to carry out suicide attacks, Zarifi says.
Who is carrying out the attacks?
Young men affiliated with or influenced by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or local militias linked to Afghan warlords who seek to topple the government of President Hamid Karzai. They could be foreign jihadis or young Afghans radicalized in southern Afghanistan—where the Taliban is still a strong presence—or in madrassas in neighboring Pakistan. In general, Afghans practice a much less fundamental version of Islam than that preached by either the Taliban or other radicals in the northwest province of Pakistan, where some three million Afghan refugees have lived for years, Langton says. This exile community provides a ready population from which to recruit attackers. "It’s likely there won’t be a scarcity of attackers," he says.
Is use of suicide bombing in Afghanistan linked to terror networks in Iraq?
Indirectly, experts say. "Jihadis from Iraq have been picked up in Afghanistan," Langton says, but there’s no evidence of coordinated insurgent command and control between the two countries. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who is seen as the mastermind behind much of the Iraq insurgency—had threatened to come back to Afghanistan, Tarzi says, and there is some evidence that foreign jihadis are returning and bringing these tactics with them. Zarifi says NATO troops and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Afghanistan are much more vulnerable to the kind of "high-impact tactics"—including suicide bombings and roadside bombs—used by insurgents in Iraq than the heavily armored U.S. troops in Iraq are.
How closely is the Taliban working with al-Qaeda at this point?
It’s hard to know, experts say. Zarifi says Zarqawi is likely traveling among the Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan. "But they are a very large and independent group, with a long history of fighting the infidels and a command structure far older than Zarqawi and al-Qaeda, or the Taliban for that matter," he says. "I strongly doubt he’d be in any kind of leadership position." Zarifi says the Pashtun tribes have a "strategic partnership" with al-Qaeda, taking their money and technical expertise, but see their struggle as a uniquely Afghan fight and likely look down on the Arabs as arrogant foreigners.
Do the Afghan national army or security forces have any chance of stopping the violence?
"On their own, they have very little prospect of doing it," Langton says. The Afghan national army is about halfway to its goal of training 70,000 soldiers. But the army, while making progress, is far from being able to stand on its own, and still relies heavily on U.S. and NATO military capabilities. The Afghan national police force—rife with corruption and cronyism—is even less effective, experts say.
How do the Afghan people feel about suicide attacks?
"They’re really sick of fighting, and most of them don’t really want the Taliban to win," Zarifi says. A concerted insurgent effort to target UN and foreign NGO reconstruction programs and drive them out of Afghanistan would ruin the country and increase local resistance. "The Taliban know that if they really threatened the presence of foreigners, the locals would turn against them," he says. "Instead, they are slowly pushing reconstruction efforts out of the rural districts, pauperizing the country, and pushing it back on the most basic tribal structures, which are more amenable to Pashtun Taliban than liberal westerners."
Will the newly elected parliament be able to do anything to stop the attacks?
Zarifi is not hopeful, saying the parliament, elected in September, has no authority in security matters and could only be effective if it served as a means of gaining public trust. "I don’t see a sign of that," he says. Langton says, however, that Afghans who have gone through the political process and elected a president and parliament in the last two years now expect their new representatives to deliver improvements in security and quality of life. "There’s violent protest lurking just below the surface," he says, "and to stop that getting out of hand the elected officials have to do some of the work."
Is the technique likely to continue to be used in Afghanistan?
Unfortunately, yes, experts say. "It’s now in Afghanistan to stay," Langton says. "It’s an efficient weapons system, it’s psychologically very strong, and it’s almost impossible to defeat." The global media reports every attack, spreading the image of the technique as both effective and damaging. While suicide bombings in Afghanistan so far have been what Zarifi calls "pretty sloppy and ineffective," he also predicts militants will soon move on from copying other attackers and perfect their own methods. "I fear for what will happen in Afghanistan when that happens," Zarifi says.