Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan

Christine Fair, Frederic Grare October 19, 2007
Before the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, suicide attacks were considered alien to Afghanistan. They began appear with regularity in 2005 and 2006 and are now commonplace. Christine Fair discusses her UNAMA report on the challenges of combating these attacks.
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On October 19, 2007, Christine Fair addressed an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to summarize the findings of her report Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan, 2001-2007, which she prepared for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA). Prior to her work for UNAMA, Fair worked for RAND, and then the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The report is based on several types of data, said Fair. First, she used the UN incident database, which provides reliable data about the location of bombings and the number of people killed. The second type of data was a set of 25 interviews of so-called failed bombers. A few of those individuals embraced the charges brought against them, all were Afghan, and all, with few exceptions, had spent time in Pakistan. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan are therefore definitely a cross border phenomenon, Fair concluded.

However, Fair noted that those interviewed were  the “flunkies of the class,” that is, individuals who failed to achieve their objectives. Reliable data on the backgrounds of successful bombers are more difficult to obtain, especially given the poor forensics practices of Afghan authorities.

Fair expressed skepticism about the preferred narratives of suicide bombings in Afghanistan—that the bombers are largely 18-25, Pakistani, and coming from Waziristan. This portrait is based on information obtained from questionable interrogation techniques.

Fair stated that these are “the world’s most inept suicide bombers;” the average victim yield is about 3, and has not improved significantly since 2005. There are several reasons for this. First, terrorist organizations in Afghanistan don’t have the ability to select attackers on quality, so many attackers are uneducated, or were educated only in Madrassas in Pakistan. Many attackers are old or physically disabled. Furthermore, attackers in Afghanistan are aiming for hard targets, such as the police, the Afghan national army, and the coalition forces. The combination of low-aptitude attackers and high-ambition hard targets has led to low victim yields.

Domestic support for suicide bombings is low, said Fair. Unlike other places, Afghanistan has yet to see a cult of the martyr emerge. Further, surveys suggest that popular support for attacks is low—11% in Afghanistan and 9% in Pakistan. 

Fair said that suicide bombings in suicide bombings will disappear outside of the larger context of the insurgency, since suicide bombers usually only desist when there’s a reasonable concession. The Pak-Afghan conflict needs to be resolved, and the border needs to be controlled. Fair concluded her talk by suggesting

In the Q&A session, Fair and audience members had a discussion about the goals of Afghan bombers. Despite their ineffectiveness in terms of victims, the bombings generate a tremendous about of press coverage and fear. The bombings foster a belief among some that the Afghan government and coalition forces are incapable of providing security—only the Taliban can provide security.

Participants also asked questions about the need to provide viable educational alternatives in Pakistan to deter parents from sending their children to Madrassas, where they are likely to be encouraged to go and fight in Afghanistan.

Read Christine Fair's report UNAMA report, Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan, 2001-2007.

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