Editor’s Note: This report is the second installment of a four-part assessment of the Taliban. The assessment will focus on the Taliban’s ideology, tactics, funding, and future outlook.
– Suicide bombings on the rise as Taliban shifts tactics
– Kidnappings and infrastructure attacks also common methods used to undermine foreign troops and Afghan government
– Taliban uses propaganda to gain support and instill fear
On April 27, 2008, at least three pro-Taliban militants managed to evade a wide security cordon and launch an attack on a military parade in the Afghan capital of Kabul . The attack is only one example of the shifting tactics utilized by the Taliban in an overt attempt to undermine the Afghan government and coalition forces.
Over the past year, Afghanistan has seen an increased number of spectacular attacks targeting key elements of the government, meant to drive a wedge between foreign troops and Afghans. The Taliban has resorted to suicide attacks, as well as the kidnappings targeting key personalities and assaults on infrastructure throughout the country.
Although the Taliban’s tactics have shifted from more traditional battles to unpredictable attacks more commonly seen in Iraq, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has also become less reliant on large-scale aerial bombings, focusing their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Despite recent NATO gains, we assess that the Taliban will continue to launch attacks against NATO troops and the Afghan government for the near to mid-term.
Initially, Taliban militants did not rely on suicide bombings, arguing that wearing an explosive vest is cowardly, and pointing out that the high number of civilian deaths typically caused by a suicide attack alienates ordinary Afghans from the insurgency. As a testament to their feelings on the subject, in 2006 a Taliban faction in Kandahar published an advertisement in a weekly newspaper, blaming suicide attacks on foreign insurgents and pledging to stop the trend.
Less than two years later, a large majority of Taliban militants agree that suicide bombings are an effective way to hurt an enemy with superior technology, weaponry and training. The number of suicide attacks nearly doubled in 2007 to 228 from a mere 140 in 2006. Further, the Taliban purportedly considers attacks that fail to hit the intended target a success due to the ensuing fear and disorder experienced after an attack.
Suicide bombings often occur in urban centers, disrupting the Afghan government’s sense of security and undermining President Hamid Karzai’s control of the country. Bombers typically come from the Waziristan region in Pakistan, along the Afghan border and maintain links to al-Qaeda militants in Iraq, where suicide bombing has long been a common tactic amongst insurgents.
Attacks Meant to Demoralize
Another emerging tactic employed by the Taliban is kidnapping, particularly of individuals likely to garner significant media coverage. One example is the kidnapping of Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin in February 2008 . Despite originally denying a role in the abduction, the Taliban eventually released Azizuddin more than three months later in return for the release of 40 pro-Taliban militants captured in Pakistan. During the negotiations that eventually led to Azizuddin’s release, a Taliban spokesman stated that kidnapping key personalities is “more lethal than suicide bombing,” indicating that the terrorist group will likely continue to use kidnapping as a bargaining tool.
In addition to kidnappings and a growing number of suicide attacks, the Taliban also launches attacks on infrastructure in an attempt to demoralize NATO troops helping to rebuild Afghanistan. The United States’ (US) single largest aid project is the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province; however, the dam has been beset by problems, due in large part to the strong Taliban presence in Helmand. While the dam would provide needed electricity, the Taliban opposes any project carried out by international aid workers because a successful project could lead to increased local support for the Afghan government. Projects such as the Kajaki Dam are also important due to the jobs it will create, helping to boost private sector growth in one of the poorest regions of the country.
Use of Propaganda
The majority of the tactics used by the Taliban are aimed at winning over the large number of Afghans who remain disenfranchised with the government. The militant leaders play both on the population’s hopes – promising peace and security once they oust foreign troops – and people’s fears of retribution, if they help foreign troops. On May 12, 2008, reports emerged that numerous villagers received letters during the night, threatening death if they supported foreign forces. The distribution of so-called “night letters” is a common occurrence as the Taliban frequently threatens to kill Afghans they believe are acting as spies for NATO troops. Since April 2008, the Taliban have made good on their threat, killing at least six alleged spies.
Recently, NATO troops have begun focusing their attacks on more specific locations in an effort to minimize civilian casualties, as they also seek to win over a demoralized Afghan population. Coalition forces also made considerable gains in Taliban strongholds in the south, during a time of year when insurgents renew offensives after the winter snow melts.
However, the gains do not indicate any significant changes in Afghanistan for the near to mid-term. Afghan troops continue to be too small and under equipped to secure the country without the support of NATO, whose own troop levels are unlikely to increase due to member countries’ growing apathy and the ongoing war in Iraq.