Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Step Up Pressure With Suicide Strikes

Recent attacks seen as tactic to demonstrate continuing strength of insurgency.
By Mina Habib
  • Suicide attacks remain difficult to intercept. Here, police recruits in Herat province practice stopping a suspect vehicle. (Photo: US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace)
    Suicide attacks remain difficult to intercept. Here, police recruits in Herat province practice stopping a suspect vehicle. (Photo: US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace)

Experts say the Taleban have orchestrated a campaign of suicide attacks to counter claims that they are losing ground and are ready for peace talks.

This year has seen an intensification of suicide bombings, with seven strikes killing some 400 Afghans, many of whom were non-combatants, according to security officials.

The attacks targeted a supermarket in the upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul, the capital’s City Centre shopping area, a government office in the Imam Saheb district of Kunduz province in the north, a branch of Kabul Bank in the southeastern city of Jalalabad, the town of Spin Boldak and a dog-fighting arena in Kandahar province in the south, and a crowded part of Khost, a town in the southeast.

“This past month has been almost like the [1992-96] civil war, when rockets would land every day and kill or injure dozens of innocent people,” Shokrollah, who works in a shop in Kabul, said, adding that every morning, he worried about being caught in a bombing on his way to work.

Amanullah Iman, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said suicide attacks had increased by 40 per cent in the past three months, with 756 acts of terrorism or violence and nearly 2,300 individuals – including foreign nationals including Pakistanis and Arabs – arrested in connection to these incidents.

Shamsullah Ahmadzai of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan said that of the 2,380 civilians killed in the past 11 months, 70 per cent died in suicide attacks.

Government spokesman Wahid Omar said that the fact that recent Taleban attacks targeted civilians reflected their inability to engage Afghan and NATO troops in battle.

“The point of terrorism is to kill many people in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear,” he said. “If the Taleban are very powerful, why don’t they take on the foreigners? If they want to fight the national army and police, they should fight them face to face and should not target defenceless civilians. This is proof that they have lost their capacity for combat.”

Afghanistan’s interior ministry, meanwhile, believes the Taleban are focusing more on suicide attacks tactics in order to raise their profile.

“The enemies are trying to get media coverage by changing their tactics. They want to make the news and influence the people’s spirit and way of thinking,” ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari said.

Bashari said suicide attacks were by nature difficult to prevent, and the police’s main asset in forestalling them was information provided by the public.

Political expert Ahmad Sayedi argues that the attacks are a direct response to announcements by coalition forces that the Taleban are in retreat and some of its leaders are willing to negotiate.

“By carrying out these attacks, the Taleban want to say that anything the foreign forces or the Afghan government say is untrue,” he said.

Others believe the bombings have multiple aims – sowing fear among the population, highlighting the government’s inability to cope, diminishing reports that the foreign forces were gaining ground, and raising morale in the Taleban’s own ranks.

Political analyst Jawid Kohistani said a February 20 Taleban summit in Kharotabad in the Pakistani city of Quetta decided that attacks should be carried out in nine provinces of Afghanistan, as a way of rebuffing reports that insurgent leaders were prepared to cooperate with the government’s High Peace Council.

Attacks were planned for Khost, Nangarhar, Helmand, Kunduz, Ghazni, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Baghlan provinces, and a number of suicide bombers were recruited in preparation.

Kohistani said some of the planned attacks were still to take place be carried out, according to Kohistani, who added that the secondary goal was to show that the Afghan government was weak

Another political analyst, Wahid Mozhda, argued that the Taleban’s latest tactics showed worrying similarities to the methods used by al-Qaida. He said that many of the more pragmatic Taleban leaders had been killed in combat and supplanted by more extreme figures with closer ties to the al-Qaida movement.

“The tactics used by al-Qaida, which are common in Iraq and Pakistan, are now being employed in Afghanistan,” Mozhda said.

Taleban spokesman Zabhiullah Mojahed claimed that the insurgents never deliberately attacked civilians.

“Innocent people are never our principal targets, and we are sorry that some defenceless individuals are killed,” he said.

Mojahed said the January suicide attack in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan district was intended to kill foreign military personnel. As for subsequent bombings in February, the one in Kunduz targeted paramilitaries recruited by the Americans, and blasts in Khost and in Kabul’s City Centre occurred when the bombers were intercepted by security forces before reaching their targets, he said.

“There has been no change to the Taleban’s ethics,” Mojahed said. “They are fighting for God. Our country has been occupied and we will never stop attacking and resisting.”

Although the Taleban regard suicide attacks as a legitimate way of hitting a powerful enemy, many religious scholars say they are not in keeping with Islamic law.

Ordinary people who have lost relatives in the attacks are urging the government to pursue the perpetrators more vigorously.

“Why does the president [Hamed Karzai] not order their execution?” asked Mohammad Sediq Sahel, who lost his son in the Wazir Akbar Khan attack. “Is he in league with these criminals, or what?”

Similar anger was expressed by a woman who lost her husband in the City Centre attack.

“They are all puppets of Pakistan, enemies of the people of Afghanistan, and they should be executed as soon as they are arrested,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “I have three children, I am illiterate and my husband was the family’s only breadwinner. My life is ruined – I have no hope for the future.”

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Afghanistan.