The village was in Taliban country southwest of Kabul. The visit had been arranged through reliable Taliban sources. Our aim was to speak to volunteers who had trained to become suicide bombers; we hoped to shed light on an increasingly deadly feature of the war in Afghanistan.
At a mud-brick house, a guerrilla showed us a sack he said contained a pair of suicide vests: "If these jackets go off, anyone within 100 meters will be killed," he warned. As it happened, the bombs killed no one that day. But Taliban leaders are counting on these weapons to drive America out of Afghanistan. Once virtually unknown here, suicide bombings are becoming an ever more common tactic. In his latest propaganda video, the Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah Akhund brags of having 1,800 bombers at the ready. Others question that figure, but the rate of suicide attacks has jumped: there were 139 last year—more than five times the 2005 number—and 35 so far this year. In early April, suicide car bombs in Laghman province and Kabul reportedly killed 14. And mounting evidence confirms what was once only suspected: that some bombers are being trained by Iraqi insurgents.
Dadullah, in another video filmed in late February, tells a crowd of 450 or so bomber recruits, "Your bodies are our new cruise missiles and atomic bombs." It's a misleading analogy, since suicide vests aren't nearly that powerful. But they don't have to be: they still kill, and have a disproportionate impact on the struggle for hearts and minds. As in Iraq, suicide bombers in Afghanistan have driven a wedge between ordinary people and the government. Many civilians now avoid police and soldiers for fear of suicide attacks. Western troops have grown similarly nervous. Coalition vehicles now display warning signs in both Pashto and Dari: keep back or we'll shoot. In recent months, at least 10 Afghan civilians have died when they got too close. With collateral damage rising, "Afghans [now] see U.S. convoys as a sign of trouble and terror," says parliamentarian Abdul Sattar Khowasi.
Suicide attacks were once unthinkable here, where they were viewed as a terrible crime against Islam. But the Taliban have come up with ways to rationalize them and Al Qaeda has begun importing tactics and training from the Middle East. According to Taliban commanders, the process began in mid-2003, just months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Osama bin Laden sent one of his most senior operations men, a former Iraqi Army officer named Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi (now in U.S. custody in Guantánamo Bay), to strike a deal with the notorious terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. In return for bin Laden's blessing and financial support, Zarqawi and other insurgents agreed to start training the Taliban in the new tools of their trade.
In early 2005, the Taliban began sending scores of fighters to Iraq, where they learned how to use deadly "shaped" IEDs and to recruit, train and deploy suicide bombers. The Afghan fighters then returned home and passed on the deadly information to their commanders, and Zarqawi began sending to Afghanistan small teams of skilled Arab insurgents. By early 2006, the Taliban had learned it couldn't fight Coalition forces toe to toe so began deploying suicide bombers in force. The Pentagon began to speak of the "Iraqification" of the Afghan conflict. Taliban and Qaeda recruiters started prowling the region tirelessly in search of poor, uneducated young prospects willing to accept their promises of an instant trip to paradise—along with payoffs of thousands of dollars to the bombers' families, according to U.S. intelligence.
That's how the insurgents we met got involved. Our guide introduced us to three young, intense-looking fedayeen—literally, men ready to sacrifice their lives. "Abu Aqeel," a 27-year-old from Peshawar, told us his story, which U.S. intelligence says is fairly typical. His upbringing hadn't been especially religious; he'd attended a government school, not a madrassa. But when the United States attacked Afghanistan in 2001 he decided to join the Taliban, eventually training at a militant boot camp in South Waziristan and then entering Afghanistan by foot (his equipment was sent in separately).
Then he waited. Planning an attack isn't simple, says Mullah Sabir, a senior Taliban commander. The heavy armor and sophisticated detection systems and countermeasures used by Coalition vehicles make them tricky targets, so suicide bombers are often sent out against Afghan officials or police instead. This increases the risk to civilians, who account for most of the victims. But that's no great worry for the Taliban, since many Afghans now blame the Americans for any civilian deaths. After one March attack just outside Jalalabad, where U.S. soldiers were ambushed and returned fire indiscriminately, 12 civilians were killed and 35 wounded, leading hundreds of furious townspeople to march in a violent anti-U.S. demonstration.
Taliban sources say the three recruits our reporter met have thus far failed to carry out fatal attacks. In fact, the bombers often succeed only in killing themselves. Nevertheless, the insurgents aren't ready to give up the tactic. As Mullah Sabir says, "Fighting a U.S. armored vehicle with an AK-47 is not much different" from putting on an explosive vest. "Either way you'll be killed." But the attacks are leading many Afghans to question the Coalition's ability to protect them. That spells more trouble to come: if locals give up on the international efforts, they will start looking elsewhere for security—even if it means cooperating with the Taliban.