Insightful UN study on Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan 2001-07
Picture source: New York Times
Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007)
United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: 9 September, 2007
This study presents the main findings of UNAMA’s comprehensive inquiry into the phenomenon of suicide attacks in Afghanistan. This study places suicide attacks in Afghanistan in the context of their occurrence in other countries and eras, identifying ways in which suicide attacks in Afghanistan differ from attacks elsewhere. It details available information about the backgrounds of the attackers and the sources of support they enjoy, both in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. This report describes the human cost borne by civilian victims and identifies several policy implications as well as mitigating strategies.
While Afghanistan’s first suicide attack occurred on 9 September, 2001, the tactic remained rare until 2005. Since then, the suicide attack has become increasingly commonplace in the Afghan theatre. While suicide attackers elsewhere in the world tend not to be poor and uneducated, Afghanistan’s attackers appear to be young, uneducated and often drawn from madrassas across the border in Pakistan. They are also - fortunately - relatively inept at this tactic, managing to kill only themselves in many instances. Suicide assailants in Afghanistan and their supporters seem to be mobilized by a range of grievances. These include a sense of occupation, anger over civilian casualties, and affronts to their national, family, and personal senses of honour and dignity that are perpetrated in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations. Some attackers are also motivated by religious rewards and duties. Support for the tactic and for the Taliban remains relatively low and geographically constrained, but those who do support the Taliban cite their ability to provide security as the main reason for doing so. While groups using the tactic appear almost exclusively to target national and international security forces, their victims are overwhelmingly civilians. Afghanistan’s civilians – not the national and international security forces - have borne the brunt of these attacks.
Expedient action is needed to deny insurgents success in their suicide attack campaign. This will require immediate and long-term intervention in the conduct of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. It also entails extending the authority of an Afghan government that enjoys widespread legitimacy among its citizens together with an ability to provide justice and rule of law for its war-battered people.
Suicide attacks in Afghanistan will likely be resolved within the context of the overall insurgency, with an increased reliance upon non-military interventions. This will most certainly require the constructive engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Conclusions, Policy Implications and Recommendations (from Chapter 6)
Given the minimal and geographically constrained support base for anti-government elements, insurgents can be denied success in their employment of suicide attacks through appropriate policy initiatives. The task at hand is to craft a series of interventions that will reduce both the supply of suicide attackers and facilitators as well demand for the same.
• Immediate efforts are needed to diminish perceptions of a foreign military
o all forces engaged in counter insurgency operations must reduce civilian casualties and conscientiously work to uphold the dignity and honour of Afghans, to avoid provoking outrage in the population and a ready supply of volunteers for jihad;
o Afghan national security forces must be supported increasingly to assume responsibility for the provision of more effective security; and
o means must be found to engage other Muslim countries to support security and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
• Military approaches alone may have only marginal short-term impacts. Immediate political efforts are needed to undermine, contain and reduce the insurgents’ support base. This will require the Afghan Government to:
o meet the demands of the population whose concerns and frustrations might otherwise drive them to embrace the armed resistance;
o reduce corruption, oversee fair judicial processes and focus on the provision of basic public services; and
o engage all relevant civil society groups - including religious authorities - to build a consensus against suicide attacks and their perpetrators.
However, for such civil society actors to step up, their safety must be ensured.
• Eliminate suicide attacks cells through a combination of law enforcement, military operations and political engagement:
o efforts must be made to compel volunteers to reject violence and adopt more constructive strategies; and
o insurgents should be encouraged to express their grievances through political and democratic means.
• Address the cross border dimension of suicide attacks in Afghanistan by bolstering.
o Pakistani support to eliminate domestic enablers for the insurgency in Afghanistan, to address militancy within its own borders, to reform governance in the tribal areas and to invest in development; and
o international encouragment to both Pakistan and Afghanistan to embark upon a process through which all outstanding bilateral concerns are addressed and eventually resolved.
Chapter Summaries (1-5)
Chapter 1. Introduction
This report explores the occurrence of suicide attacks in Afghanistan from several points of view. It first presents an overview of the literature on suicide attacks generally, allowing one to discern ways in which suicide attacks in Afghanistan resemble or differ from suicide attacks in other countries. It presents detailed analyses of incident data collected by the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, as well as information about the attackers and the various sources of support they enjoy in Afghanistan and further afield. It also details the human costs of this tactic and concludes with a discussion of policy implications and recommendations. The information cut-off date was 30 June, 2007.
As explained in more detail in this chapter of the report, the terms “suicide attacks” or “suicide missions” are used interchangeably in preference to the term “suicide terrorism.” While multiple definitions of terrorism exist, usually the sine qua non of a terrorist attack is the perpetrators’ explicit focus upon non- combatants or civilians. In Afghanistan, anti-government elements target combatants in the vast majority of cases, even if the casualties are predominantly civilian. Suicide attacks differ from other insurgent tactics in that the success of a suicide mission is solely contingent upon the death of the attacker in the same operation.
Chapter 2. Suicide attackers: dying to win or dying to kill?
Suicide attacks have emerged as an increasingly common and potent insurgency tactic since the simultaneous assaults on U.S. and French troops in Beirut in October 1983. Their strategic appeal to insurgents, and consequent growth, is not difficult to explain. As a form of psychological warfare, suicide attacks leave populations feeling helpless against unidentifiable assailants and diminish their confidence in the state’s ability to protect them. They also dispense with the need to plan and execute the assailants’ extraction after an attack and, if successful, offer greater group operational security because the attacker cannot be caught and interrogated.
Studies of suicide attackers in different theatres have identified a number of patterns that are reflected to varying degrees in Afghanistan. Although suicide attackers are generally better educated and less likely to be poor in most societies, this is not the case in Afghanistan, where they have tended to be impoverished and either undereducated or uneducated. The groups responsible for planning attacks often use ritual and ceremony commemorating acts of martyrdom to create a cult of veneration around successful suicide attackers. Such individual recognition, however, is largely absent in Afghanistan. Greater resemblance between Afghanistan and other theatres is evident in the presence of international military forces, an armed campaign against them, and a difference in religion between the majority of foreign forces present and the population at large.
Enabling environments include poverty, which, though correlating weakly with suicide attackers themselves is often associated with weak states that can be exploited as safe havens by terrorists and are more likely to be affected by ethnic and religious conflict. Another factor is the degree of public support for suicide attacks, which depends upon attackers’ targeting choices and the perceived concern of the state or occupier for civilian life. Suicide attacks may be seen as restoring an “intimacy of violence” against an adversary that often relies upon air power.
Ending the foreign forces’ presence may not necessarily be the motivation for groups employing suicide attacks. Islamist militant groups are increasingly using suicide attacks against regimes that are seen as Western proxies. Autocratic Muslim states are much more likely to be targeted than either free or partly free Muslim states, suggesting that democratization may have a mitigating effect that tends to reduce the use of suicide attacks.
Chapter 3. Suicide attacks in Afghanistan: analysis of incident data
While the very first suicide attack occurred on 9 September, 2001, when Al Qaeda suicide operatives posing as journalists assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, suicide bombings only came to prominence in Afghanistan in mid-2005. Only five attacks occurred between 2001 and 2005, when they escalated unexpectedly to 17 attacks over the course of the year. In 2006 there were 123 actual attacks, and in 2007 there were 77 attacks between 1 January and 30 June. Suicide missions now form an integral part of the Taliban’s strategy.
Employed by the Taliban as a military technique, suicide bombing – paradoxically – as had little military success in Afghanistan. While 76 percent of all suicide missions target international and Afghan military forces, the greatest impact of suicide bombings has been on civilian bystanders and the Afghan people as a whole. A total of 183 Afghans – 121 of whom were civilians – were killed in suicide bombings in the first half of 2007. The lives of others have been negatively affected by the consequent impeded progress in reconstruction and development that has come about as a result of mitigating measures that the Government and organisations have had to implement. At the same time, given the spotlight suicide attacks have drawn in media and public attention, they have contributed to alienation of the people from Government, since both the state and its security forces are perceived to have failed to ensure the necessary safety and protection.
While Kandahar, Kabul, and Khost have seen the most suicide attacks, other areas of Afghanistan have experienced increasing levels of suicide attacks as well. This reflects the stated interest of insurgents in destabilising the entire country and attracting widespread publicity at low cost. Since September 2006 insurgents have increasingly relied on Body-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (BBIED), perhaps because statistically they are more lethal in Afghanistan than those which are Vehicle-borne (VBIED) – the other main delivery mechanism. Available data show that in 2007, security forces have been a great deal more successful at interdicting attacks, than in the previous two years. As of 30 June, 36 attackers were neutralised and 34 devices seized – an enormous increase compared to 2006. At the same time security forces have had to deal with many more attacks, leaving the final number of attacks for just the first 6 months of 2007 substantially higher than in 2005 and 2006. Suicide attacks are most likely to continue to be focussed in or around urban centres.
Chapter 4. Who are Afghanistan’s suicide attackers and their supporters?
Little is known about the identity and motivation of suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Evidence gathered from prisoners interviewed in Pul-e-Charki prison and from other sources suggests that they differ markedly from those in other conflict areas. They appear to be young (sometimes children), poor, uneducated, easily influenced by recruiters and draw heavily from madrassas across the border in Pakistan. Their motivation seems to be draw from a range of issues, including religious rewards and duties. Secular drivers such as a perception of occupation, security, ethno-nationalist motivation, as well as communal and personal concerns including dishonour and humiliation, are also influential.
The tribal areas of Pakistan remain an important source of human and material assistance for suicide attacks in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Afghan dimension of the problem is undeniable. In a comprehensive attempt to understand how support for suicide bombing grows or diminishes, this chapter reviews public opinion polls related to suicide bombings and support for the Government, the Taliban, the United States and the wider international presence. It is important to note that the most popular motivation for supporting the Taliban was the belief that they can bring security to Afghan communities, although overall public support for the Taliban remains astonishingly low.
With respect to suicide attacks, when asked if they are launched in defence of Islam, only eleven percent of respondents believed that they are always or sometimes justified. This figure can be compared to the Pew Foundation’s measurement of levels of support for suicide attacks in numerous other Muslim countries. While no trend can be depicted in Afghanistan, the number as such is relatively lower than many other countries and is comparable to the level of support found in Pakistan (nine percent).
Chapter 5: The human rights dimension: the impact of suicide attacks on Afghan communities
The impact of suicide attacks ranges far beyond the death of the immediate victim. The phenomenon strikes fear into the heart of the population, killing and maiming innocent civilians and limiting their enjoyment of basic human rights. Children are particularly affected, especially Afghan girls, who already struggle to realise their rights. Afghan victims express complete incomprehension at the decision of suicide attackers: “It was like they tried to kill the children.” In the aftermath of attacks, unexpected medical fees and psychological trauma compound families’ losses.
The profound socio-economic consequences of suicide missions affect even peaceful areas of Afghanistan. The unpredictability of attacks curtails business activities.
An attack in Kunduz in May 2007 forced shoppers to avoid markets, curtailing freedom of movement. Fear of suicide attacks means that parents keep children at home, and adults lose opportunities to expand their sources of income as well as access to essential public services.
The chapter explores how, despite special protection under international law, boys in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been coerced into suicide missions. Despite the stated commitment of the Taliban not to use boys without facial hair, school children in Tank, Pakistan were convinced to join the jihad with promises of adventure. Tactics and incentives ranging from the outright abduction of boys to persuasion involving promises of material gain (‘motorcycles and cell phones’) are used to ‘recruit’ children from poor and uneducated households. Another sad fact that comes to light is that children, who are inquisitive, curious and often attracted by the presence of military forces, are frequently among the victims of suicide attackers.
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