Suicide bombing has become routine in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t always so.
The reasons why suicide bombing began in Afghanistan, and why it is likely to continue past a peace settlement or some form of Taliban return to power, are worth exploring. The rise and continuance of radicalism in Pakistan, the breakdown of Pashtun culture, the influence and participation of global jihadists, and the asymmetrical, technology-driven style of warfare imposed by the US and its Western allies are all factors in its continued use. The following piece is an inquiry into suicide bombings in Afghanistan based on published research, but also extensive interviews held between the author and well-informed Afghans.
Global Resurgence of Suicide Bombings in the 1980s
In the last four decades, the relative effectiveness of suicide bombing as a tactic has caused a steady rise in its use worldwide. Suicide bombing campaigns led to the US and French forces leaving Lebanon in 1983 and were no doubt a factor in Israeli forces leaving Lebanon in 1985 and then the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the mid-1990s. Suicide terrorism was later used by Tamils in their fight against the Sri Lankan government, which resulted in a Tamil state in 1990. The PKK’s suicide campaign was also a factor in the Turkish government’s granting autonomy to the Kurds in the 1990s (1).
In the Middle East, this method of warfare was not automatically approved by religious leaders in the Islamic world, even if the “cause” of the suicide bombers was considered legitimate among the “Arab freedom fighters.” For example, in the Lebanese campaign in the early 1980s, the tactic was contested by key Muslim clerics, including Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Fadlallah (1935 - 2010). Fadlallah refused to issue a fatwa (religious edict) legitimizing suicide missions. However, Iranian Shi’a spiritual leaders stepped in and readily provided theological cover (2).
Later on, during the First Intifada in the Palestinian conflict (1987 – 1993), Sunni clerics were also asked to grant approval for suicide bombings as Islamic “self-sacrifice” (3). However, Sunni clerics generally refused to give religious validation to suicide bombing. This changed on March 6, 1995, when the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (assassinated in 2004), stated that “in any case where a suicide bomber received the blessings of a certified Muslim cleric, he was not to be considered a suicide for personal reasons, but rather a shahid who fell in the Jihad” (4). It was the first time a Sunni leader provided theological cover for a suicide mission. Al-Qaeda, besides other Sunni militant groups, used Sheikh Yassin’s theological cover and started their suicide campaigns.
Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan
In 2019, 45.5 percent of the world’s suicide terrorism incidents occurred in Afghanistan (5). As a result, Afghans in both rural and urban areas continue to live with the overwhelming fear of such attacks, which occur daily.
Although war in Afghanistan has been continuous for the last 43 years, prior to September 2001, suicide campaigns were not used as a war tactic. There is also no evidence of suicide bombing during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and later during the Afghan civil wars. After Ahmad Shah Masood’s assassination on September 9, 2001, by two Al-Qaeda suicide operatives, suicide bombing campaigns began in Afghanistan. Initially, Al-Qaeda and also Hizb-i-Islami Hekmatyar (HiH) led this campaign, mainly because Taliban leadership--including Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader--was opposed to suicide bombing. The Afghan Taliban first began suicide bombing in 2004, under the movement’s senior military commander, Mullah Dadullah Akhund (assassinated in 2007). Since then, the group has sought to force the US and international forces out of Afghanistan using suicide bombings as a primary weapon.
Between 2001 and 2018 there were 1,339 suicide attacks in Afghanistan, claiming 9,197 lives and wounding another 15,997 (6). The Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in the Khurasan Province (IS-K), and the Haqqani network-- loosely affiliated with the Taliban-- are among the most potent suicide terror organizations active in Afghanistan. Since 2001, the Afghan Taliban has been responsible for more than 59 percent of known suicide attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network, which is part of the Afghan Taliban nexus, also has carried out four percent of the suicide attacks. Many high-profile suicide attacks point to the expertise of the Haqqani network. This makes the Taliban responsible for 63 percent of the claimed suicide attacks since 2001 (7).
According to many Afghan sources, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 potential suicide bombers on Taliban “waiting lists.”
The Future of Suicide Bombing After a Possible Taliban Return to Power
On February 29, 2020, in Doha, Qatar, an agreement was achieved between the Taliban and the United States. Hopes were finally high that the signing of a deal would provide stepping-stones to end the four-decade war in Afghanistan. However, on April 14, 2021, President Biden announced a full withdrawal of US forces by September 11, 2021, watering down hopes for a peaceful settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. While the decision to withdraw US troops may or may not lead to the return of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to power, it may lead to a protracted war between them and the Afghan government. Besides this, many other underlying issues for a long-lasting peace in Afghanistan still remain.
Suicide bombing is a significant challenge to a long-lasting peace in Afghanistan. It is believed that suicide bombing will continue to stay here for the foreseeable future. There are several reasons. First of all, it is the lack of unity of action between militants, as some insurgent groups--including splinter groups within the Taliban--do not seem to support any peace deals. There are no guarantees that groups such as Al-Qaeda, IS-K or the Haqqani network will stop the use of suicide attacks anytime soon. The Haqqani network is a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban. It has a crucial role in instigating suicide bombing with an aim to cause the Afghan government to collapse, restoring the Islamic Emirate, and eliminating the foreign political forces from Afghanistan. While on the surface the Haqqani network is part of the ongoing peace talks, it is believed that they only follow the Pakistani military’s long-term policy to destabilize Afghanistan.
A second reason for the possible long-term continuation of suicide attacks in Afghanistan is a growing number of local Taliban field commanders with suicide operational capabilities. These commanders can deploy their suicide bombers independently. These commanders are already semi-independent from their leadership in Quetta or Peshawar Shuras due to local income sources such as local taxation or poppy (8). Pakistan, on the other hand, also aims to establish links with these commanders, as this might turn fruitful in a later stage of the Afghan war. With a sustained local income and political support from countries including Pakistan, these local commanders with suicide bombing capabilities may become a new force to perpetuate suicide bombing in Afghanistan in the long term.
Third, due to its efficiency, in Afghanistan suicide bombing is also utilised for a vast array of non-political reasons. Examples of suicide missions are abundant, especially ones that are used to settle scores between parties, as well as business issues and more. This factor contributes to the use of suicide terrorism long term, even if a peace agreement is achieved with the Taliban.
Fourth, with limited manpower and resources, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have no other alternative than to adopt drastic, shocking and violent measures to achieve their goals, making suicide bombing a weapon of choice.
Counterinsurgency and Suicide Bombing
In the last two decades, the Allied Joint Doctrine for Counter-insurgency (COIN), a strategy developed during the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan proved to be as indiscriminate, especially for Afghans. Civilians continue to suffer from these policies. Night raids, excessive use of force including torture, the frisking of women, and the use of dogs at homes and in holy places are a common sight, especially in rural Afghanistan. COIN’s policies and strategies alienate the majority of Afghans and help sustain the insurgency. Many rural Afghans experience the same level of violence as their parents experienced under the Soviet invasion. The use of drones and night raids causes major grievances among Afghans. Therefore, Afghans suffer from both insurgency-related attacks and the counterinsurgency responses. Collective grievances lead to more insurgents joining in the ranks of suicide bombers.
The night raids, drone attacks, mortar fire and bombings mainly happens without any perpetrators facing justice for these atrocities. Even though after four decades of fighting Afghans are accustomed to violence and war, they are not used to dying without any opportunity fight back. The majority of locals’ deaths and injuries caused by these counterinsurgency operations happen without a chance for the aggrieved person to seek justice or fight back. Since they fight an invisible and powerful enemy, many resort to suicide bombing as the only way they can harm their enemy.
While the Taliban peace deal will ensure the departure of most US and international conventional forces, there is a chance that the main bulk of the US-led counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan will be fought by military contractors, thus ensuring the continuation of the US-led counterinsurgency operations.
Media Coverage of Suicide Campaign
Over the last two decades, the impact of individual suicide bombings has been inflated disproportionately by the media. A suicide bomber can instantly grab and dominate the kind of headlines that were not possible in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. This instantaneous news media environment means that terrorist groups get a lot of coverage from committing just one act of suicide. Media, inadvertently, helps these groups in pushing their violent narrative to a much larger audience.
Afghan society, due to decades of frequent exposure to violence and war, is desensitized to extreme violence. Everyday flashes of graphic killings, bombings, and gory violence has reduced our capacity to be horrified. Therefore, the ability to be horrified by the view of a suicide bomber’s body parts-- a leg or hand-- has also diminished considerably among Afghans. In other words, the media has helped suicide terrorism to become the new normal.
It is most likely that suicide bombings—and terrorism in general—will not cease to exist in Afghanistan after a possible peace settlement with the Taliban. Even now, as a peace process is officially ongoing, attacks rock the Afghan capital of Kabul, including the attack on May 9, 2021, which killed 55 people, including school children. On the other hand, during the last 12 months, insurgents have turned to magnetic “sticky bomb” attacks across the country, targeting civilians.
Even if the Taliban returns to some form of power, the will to use suicide bombing as a political weapon will remain, especially among groups that oppose the Taliban’s joining the peace process. This is mainly because the means to carry out suicide bombing attacks--and organizations willing to carry out these attacks--will still be available.
The Haqqani network, with its extensive technical and logistical capabilities for suicide bombing and ties to the Pakistani government, will remain in place regardless of what happens politically.
Finally, there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 well-trained and ideologically prepared suicide bombers on the “waiting lists” both inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the absence of any de-radicalization and psychological support programs targeting these vulnerable groups, there is a strong chance they will be used by any groups--with or without ideologies.
Kanishka Nawabi is an analyst who has worked in the Afghan public sector and in NGO management for over two decades. Along with an MBA, Kanishka has an MA in International Relations from SOAS, University of London, and is currently working toward his PhD: "Pathways to Suicide Terrorism in Afghanistan."
 R.A. Pape, Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks 2005)
 Reuter, C., My life is a weapon (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 2006)
 S. Shay, The Shahids, (New Brunswick: USA; London; UK: Transaction Publishers 2009)
 Shay 2004
 GTD-START Database, University of Maryland (www.Start.umd.edu)
 GTD START
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