Insights into Afghanistan suicide assaults

One of the hardest things about researching suicide attacks is getting hold of detailed reporting and analysis of how attacks are undertaken. High-profile incidents such as 9/11 or 7/7 are of course awash with detail, due to the official and media manpower thrown at them, but the daily grind of attacks in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are hard to pin down in any great detail.

Which is why this is so interesting. A report from a private security contractor in Afghanistan, detailing the 5 May suicide assault by nine (probable) Taliban attackers on a government compound in Zaranj, Afghanistan.

Such complex assaults have become an increasing part of the Afghan insurgency’s tactical repertoire. From an abstract perspective such attacks are interesting because they represent an evolution of the suicide bombing tactic in that they:

1. involve the use and coordination of multiple attackers against a specific target. In this instance nine attackers were employed in two vehicles, dismounting outside the target compound.

2. are relatively discriminating; it appears that in this instance the intended targets were members of the provincial council and the governor. Note the comment in the linked post that when moving through the adjacent compounds to get to their target, the attackers did not fire upon their occupants.

3. involve the use of firearms and other munitions in addition to the employment of suicide explosive vests. This requires at least a degree of additional training and practice (though as FRI notes, in this instance the attackers’ weapon handling was pretty poor – something that has been noted about Taliban insurgents more widely). Reportedly one of the vehicles was also a VBIED but the driver  was unable to reach his target and disengaged.

This is some way from one Palestinian teenager blowing him/herself up in a Tel Aviv pizza restaurant, and would have required a degree of planning and reconnaissance as well as the logistic effort needed to muster such a force.

I’ve noted before the phenomenon of attackers detonating themselves without any prospect of killing the ‘other’ – either as human demolition charges or against infrastructure targets. This incident is an excellent example of such tactics, with the attackers gradually whittling away their numbers in an attempt to breach a series of defensive obstacles.

While such attacks do indicate an impressive degree of resource on the part of the Taliban, i.e. the ability to field nine suicide attackers simultaneously and to sacrifice them in such a way (rather than, say, using them individually in separate attacks). Also, their devices all appeared to have functioned and there is little doubt that the attackers were well motivated.

However, as the FRI report notes, their reconnaissance was lacking (their approach route had been blocked by new roadworks) and when they were unable to proceed to their objective, they simply blew themselves up in a futile effort to breach a wall. There is little to suggest that the attackers were able to adapt their plan when it began to go wrong.

This is a fairly typical outcome for such assaults in Afghanistan – the guard force tends to kill the majority of attackers before they even get to within striking range of their objectives. Which does somewhat beg the question why do the Taliban keep committing such significant resources to normally unsuccessful attacks? (In this instance nine attackers died in return for the deaths of one provincial council member, two policemen and a civilian). Perhaps the answer lies in the ‘propaganda of the deed’ concept – it does not matter all that much that the attack was largely a failure; the value lies in the fact that they were willing and able to attempt it in the first place. It shows that the Afghan government cannot even protect its own offices and compounds, much less the population.

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