Suicide attacks have become a major factor in the current resurgence of violence in Afghanistan, indicating Al Qaeda is staging a comeback. So far this year, there have been 32 suicide terrorist attacks, more than the total committed in the entire history of the country.
Despite Afghanistan's turbulent history and its recent three-decade long conflict, the first recorded suicide attack in Afghanistan did not occur until Sept. 9, 2001 – just two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes in the United States.
Two Al Qaeda members posing as members of the media blew themselves up and assassinated Ahmad Shah Masoud, leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The second suicide terrorist attack in Afghanistan took place in 2002, followed by two such attacks in 2003, six in 2004, and 21 in 2005.
The increasing use of suicide terrorism has contributed to an ever larger number of total insurgent attacks. According to the RAND Corporation terrorist incident database, the total number of insurgent attacks and deaths caused by these attacks has quadrupled since 2002. Violence has been particularly acute in the southern provinces bordering Pakistan, especially Kandahar and Helmand. Several factors can be attributed to this rise in suicide attacks.
First, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have successfully tapped into the expertise and training of the broader jihadi community. Militants have imparted knowledge on suicide tactics to Afghan groups through the Internet and in face-to-face visits, and these militants – with Al Qaeda's assistance – have supplied a steady stream of suicide bombers.
Second, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have concluded that suicide bombing is more effective than other tactics in killing Afghan and coalition forces. This is a direct result of the success of such groups as Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and Iraqi groups. Suicide attacks allow insurgents to achieve maximum impact with minimal resources. Data show that when the insurgents fight US and coalition forces directly in Afghanistan, there is only a 5 percent probability of inflicting casualties. With suicide attacks, the chance of killing people and instilling fear increases several fold.
Third, Al Qaeda and the Taliban believe that suicide attacks have increased the level of insecurity among the Afghan population. This has caused some Afghans to question the government's ability to protect them and has further destabilized the authority of local government institutions. Consequently, the distance between the Afghan government and the population in specific areas is widening.
Fourth, suicide attacks have provided renewed visibility for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which previous guerrilla attacks did not generate. Because of their lethality and high profile nature, every suicide attack is reported in the national and international media.
While the majority of suicide attackers are foreigners, some Afghans have been influenced by the increased proliferation of extremist propaganda and have carried out suicide attacks.
A number of Afghan refugees have attended Pakistani madrassahs, where they were radicalized and immersed in extremist ideologies. And Al Qaeda, which still operates in neighboring Pakistan, continues to spread its extremist global ideology in Afghanistan. Western intelligence agencies have reliable, current information that both Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are in Pakistani areas bordering Afghanistan.
How can the US and Afghan governments counter the growing use of suicide attacks? Lessons from Iraq, Israel, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere suggest that at least three steps are critical: improving intelligence, increasing law-enforcement capabilities, and countering extremist ideology.
The Afghan government must enhance the capacity of its intelligence services to disrupt the suicide support network by better infiltrating the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Suicide attackers rarely work alone. There is a critical network that provides financial, logistical, and reconnaissance support including such functions as target identification and time, date, and location of the attack.
Police training should also be enhanced to better deal with suicide tactics. Currently, Afghan national police go through several weeks of training, but receive no specific training on threat assessment for suicide attacks. Training should incorporate tactics, techniques, and procedures to detect and deter suicide terrorism. Police should be provided the necessary resources to handle the threat efficiently.
Most important, the Afghan Ulama, or council of religious leaders, need to continue playing a major role in countering the extremist ideology of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Afghan Ulama has issued fatwas, or religious decrees, that unambiguously oppose suicide bombing. But they must keep reiterating that suicide bombing does not lead to an eternal life in paradise, does not permit martyrs to see the face of Allah, and does not allow martyrs to have the company of 72 beautiful maidens in paradise. It is also important for the Ulama to emphasize that the battle in Afghanistan is not between Islam and the West, but between forces of progress and those who wish for Afghanistan to remain weak and divided – a fact which discredits Mullah Omar's argument.
Afghanistan has made enormous political strides since 2001. It would be shameful for this progress to unravel because of the inability of the US and Afghanistan to counter the proliferation of extremist tactics. Success in the global war on terrorism depends on it.
• Hekmat Karzai is director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul. Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Both have conducted field research in Afghanistan on terrorism.