KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Fourteen successive suicide bomb attacks have shaken this province in a way that nearly four years of guerrilla insurgency has not.
Afghan officials say they have made strides in the last few days to shut down terror networks that launched these attacks, arresting 20 insurgents this week. But Taliban spokesmen say their suicide attacks, including a deadly bombing Wednesday in Khost Province, have only just begun.
"I confirm that there are 200 to 250 fidayeen [dedicated soldiers] who are prepared to carry out suicide attacks, and the number is increasing day by day," says Dr. Mohammad Hanif, a Taliban spokesman, speaking to the Monitor by telephone.
While it is impossible to verify such claims, the use of suicide bombers has already given the Taliban a renewed visibility. Once deemed unacceptable in Afghan culture, suicide attacks have become common this winter, including the Jan. 15 assassination of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry in Kandahar and an attack the following day that killed 23 Afghans in the border town of Spin Boldak. The suicide attacks have had a devastating effect on the morale of Afghans, and have begun to force foreign aid workers to change the way they deliver aid in the southern part of the country.
"The Taliban have been doing a lot of guerrilla attacks in the last year, but they didn't get any credit for that; it didn't create enough instability," says Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander who threw his support behind the Karzai government last year after being released from Afghan prison. "Now, with the suicide attacks, they have added a lot of instability and nervousness and anxiety to the people and the government, and now their name is bigger than it was before."
"But to me, it just shows the Taliban's weakness," says Mullah Rocketi, who earned his nickname during the Russian war for his ability to shoot down helicopters with rockets. "They couldn't do frontal assault. They couldn't do guerrilla attacks. All they can do is suicide attacks, and kill more of their own people."
Whether out of weakness or strength, the tactic has changed daily life. The streets of Kandahar, while still bustling with trade, have checkposts on nearly every other block, as police and national Army troops check vehicles for suspicious packages.
Police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the key trouble signs are cars that have had seats removed to make room for large bundles. But several of the most recent arrests have come from tip-offs, including vehicle descriptions and license-plate numbers. Yet even police admit they don't have the manpower to check every vehicle; the only way to stop the suicide attacks is if more Afghans come forward to cooperate with police when they see suspicious activity.
The suicide attacks have set off debate over where the suicide bombers come from. The Taliban claim that all of their 250 suicide bombers are Afghans, a sign of local support. Afghan officials insist that the bulk of the attacks have been conducted by foreigners, as evidenced by recent arrests that have included non-Pashtun Pakistanis.
"It is obvious that the Taliban have some secret places here, they have professional people who help them fix the wires and assemble the bombs," says Gen. Rahmatullah Raufi, the corps commander of Afghan National Army in Kandahar. "The explosives come from Pakistan, and the drivers come from Pakistan and foreign countries. It is very difficult for an Afghan to persuade himself to commit suicide."
Earlier this week in Nimroz, a province on the Iranian border, an Iraqi and three Pakistanis with suspected links to Taliban rebels were arrested and are believed by police to have been plotting attacks.
Recent arrests in Kandahar indicate that both Pakistanis and Afghans may be involved in the latest attacks. According to Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid, Afghan police have arrested 20 people - including two Pakistanis who were caught with a vehicle packed with explosives - in villages around Kandahar. The two Pakistanis, Governor Khalid says, have admitted that they were preparing to carry out suicide attacks.
But some Afghan officials say that the recent trend of violence has as much to do with the failures of Afghan governance as it does with foreign infiltration.
"Why are these attacks happening now? It's because of the distance between the government and the people," says Mirwaiz Yaseeni, former chief of an elite counter-narcotics police unit and now a member of Parliament. "Our intelligence service is weak. Our law enforcement and judicial systems are weak. Our government is constantly shaken by corruption. We have to come up with a good cabinet, then purify the second layer and so on. Only then the support for the Taliban will decrease."
One thing that everyone agrees on is that suicide attacks have brought the Taliban renewed attention.
The attack against a crowd of spectators at a wrestling match in Spin Boldak, for instance, grabbed headlines worldwide, mostly because of the number killed in the attack. More than 23 Afghans died on that day alone, and dozens of others were seriously wounded, all by a single man riding a motorcycle packed with explosives.
"Their tactics are changing," says a Kandahar police official familiar with the investigation. "They used to hire Afghans to drive cars to a target, and not tell them that there were explosives inside. But the Afghans were not very effective and they didn't get close enough to the target. So now they are sending in voluntary suicide bombers, and their effectiveness has improved a lot."
Gov. Khalid says he is hopeful that more Afghans will cooperate to arrest suicide attackers. As an example, he points to the village of Loy Kariz, on the Pakistan border. According to police reports, a group of Taliban attempted to cross the border around midnight on Tuesday, and demanded to be put up for the night.
An argument between the Taliban and villagers quickly turned into a gunbattle, leaving two Taliban and one villager killed. "They wanted to cross the border, and the people stopped them," says Khalid. "From my view, security is getting better."
General Raufi, points to a similar incident where a suicide bomber was driving from the Pakistani border past the airport with massive explosives in the back of a minivan. Afghan Army forces gave chase, after getting a tip that explosives were inside. The driver finally crashed into a truck. The van, which was set to explode on impact, failed to detonate.
"The driver ran into a village, and the villagers captured him and tied his hands," says Raufi. "You could see that he was ready to die. He had clean clothes, a clean beard, and he has kohl [eyeliner] around his eyes. I don't know why he couldn't do it."
He smiles. "Thank God."
The following interview was conducted by phone Tuesday with Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif, from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.
Monitor: Why is the Taliban carrying out suicide attacks now?
Hanif: This is just one of the tactics we are using in our war. This is an effective way of destroying our enemy. It is a tactic that has been used by mujahideen all over the world.
Monitor: Have you received any advice or training from foreign mujahideen? If so, from where?
Hanif: There is no need for training somebody to carry out a suicide attack. A fidayee [dedicated soldier] is ready to die for his religion. He just puts bombs around himself, and he is giving up his soul to God. There is no need for training.
Monitor: How many fidayeen do you have?
Hanif: I confirm that there are 200 to 250 fidayeen who are prepared to carry out suicide attacks, and the number is increasing day by day. Especially in the Southern and Eastern provinces of the country, the country is occupied by foreign forces and it affects the pure nationalist emotions of our people. That is why the numbers are increasing.
Monitor: Of those fidayeen, how many are Afghans and how many are foreigners?
Hanif: The 200 to 250 fidayeen are all Afghans. There are no foreigners.
Monitor: In the Koran, suicide is forbidden. Is a suicide attack allowed under Islam?
Hanif: In Islam, there are things that are haram [forbidden] and things that are hallal [permitted]. The suicide attack is allowed under sharia [Islamic] law. And the reason I say that it is allowed is that we find it in stories in the Holy Koran. For instance, in the past history of Islam, there are people who sold themselves just to make Allah happy. And also, it happened once that one of the companions of the prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him, asked the prophet, "if I die fighting my enemy, what will happen to me?" And the prophet told him, "You will go to heaven." So this companion of the prophet attacked the enemy all by himself, and he killed many enemies but he himself was martyred. And the prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him, said 'This man is a shahid, he is a martyr." And we have the same examples from the period of the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr Sediq.
Monitor: The Taliban have always told the world that they are seekers of knowledge, so why are they attacking schools and threatening teachers?
Hanif: Yes, you are right, the Taliban are supporters of education. And the people who burn schools, they are not the Taliban. They are the enemies of Islam, they are the enemies of the Taliban.... Burning schools is not allowed under Islam.
Monitor: Do you have enough funding to carry out your attacks, and if so, where does the money come from?
Hanif: We are well supported by the people of Afghanistan, and especially by the rich and wealthy Afghans who like the Taliban's ideas and approach to government. At the same time, God is helping us. In each battle, in each attack, we seize lots of weapons that the government does not admit to the media.
Monitor: Recently, Osama Bin Laden offered a truce with Americans if they withdrew troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Would the Taliban be prepared to offer a truce with the Afghanistan government?
Hanif: It is too early to tell you what we will do. The main goal of our war is to drive away the occupiers and the Americans. After that, we might start to talk with what you call the Afghan government and what we call the slaves of the foreign occupiers.