What Cheney Attack Says About Taliban Tactics

The conventional wisdom about the increase in suicide attacks in Afghanistan is that Taliban insurgents there are learning from the tactics of the Iraq insurgency. This conventional wisdom was on full display in the day-after press coverage of yesterday’s attack on Bagram Air Base, where Vice President Cheney was visiting. See the Washington Post and New York Times news-analysis-style pieces, for example.

However, in a fascinating piece for the Jamestown Foundation, Brian Glyn Williams and Cathy Young, both of U-Mass.-Dartmouth, says a close look at recent suicide bombings in Afghanistan only reveals the ineptitude of Afghanistan suicide bombers as compared to Iraq.

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?

Their answer: the Taliban have been selecting hard targets such as military bases and convoys, while the Iraqi insurgents are content to target civilians. “Far from imitating Iraqi insurgent tactics, the Taliban are trying to avoid losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by needlessly killing civilians,” Williams and Young write.

Thus, the writers conclude that the Taliban are playing a dangerous game by employing suicide bombing. We recommend reading the whole piece.

UPDATE: Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress is among those who holds the more prevalent view of the strategic implications of Afghanistan’s suicide attacks. Watch her below (or click here to watch the video if you can’t see the embedded player):

The terrorism index to which Wadhams refers in the video is on Foreign Policy’s Web site.

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