Tuesday, February 27, 2007
suicide, it's a suicide, another:
Since at least 2004, Iraq-style tactics -- suicide bombings, recorded kidnappings and executions, and in particular improvised explosive devices -- have been trickling into Afghanistan, to the point where some observers have feared the "Iraqification" of that country. It's not something to be sanguine about, as today's suicide bombing outside of Bagram demonstrates. But according to a new Jonestown Foundation analysis by Brian Glyn Williams and Cathy Young, there's something of a silver lining: suicide bombings are indeed up -- as of late February, there have already been 21 suicide bombings in 2007; that's nearly as many as in all of 2005 -- but they're ... not killing many people.

Astoundingly, of the 21 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 21 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?

Williams and Young studied 158 suicide attacks since 2001 and found an answer. While Iraqi suicide bombers target civilians and soft targets in order to sow destabilization and provoke/respond to sectarian violence, nearly all Taliban suicide bombings -- and in Afghanistan, resistance to the presence of foreign forces and the Karzai government is overwhelmingly Taliban -- are focused on Afghan or U.S./NATO security forces. The two researchers assess that unlike the Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaeda or Shiite militias, the Taliban has to cleave the population away from the Karzai government, but in the process must "avoid losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by needlessly killing civilians."

The trouble is that it works. Members of the International Security Assistance Force have in some cases balked at taking up operations in suicide-bomb-heavy territory. Worse still, Williams and Young find that freaked-out ISAF forces have responded by upping their tolerance for collateral damage. Little is more provocative in Afghanistan than civilian deaths at foreign hands; in that sense, the Taliban gambit does show some success.

Consider what you've got here: a localized insurgency that needs to deny Karzai and his allies control of Afghanistan and finds that even ineffective suicide bombing can have some utility as a deterrent force. Yet it remains a force with limited potential for growth among the civilian population and it's fearful of inflicting civilian casualties. Basically, this is about as favorable terrain for counterterrorism as ever there is (saying that while recognizing that no counterterrorism campaign is really favorable). Here's where you want to put Petraeus and his COIN wise men.
--Spencer Ackerman