The 21st Century U.S. military in Afghanistan remains largely defenseless to a 17th Century British tactic, which is the suicide bomber. Last week one such bomber on a bicycle launched an attack in the heart of Maimanah, the capital of Faryab Province. His target was a joint U.S./Afghan foot patrol. The bomber was able to kill three American and four Afghan soldiers. There were also a significant number of U.S. and Afghan soldiers wounded; the number of injured and the severity of their injuries was not disclosed by NATO/ISAF.
The attack was a stunning success both from a casualties-inflicted standpoint and from a public relations standpoint. This bold and brilliant military tactic continues to befuddle U.S. and NATO officials. One by one these suicide bomber assaults are wearing down Western resolve and impacting Western public opinion, which is now overwhelmingly in favor of a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The official response from ISAF Headquarters to this latest tragedy was tepid, factually incorrect and dysfunctional. General John R. Allen stated that the enemies of peace “detonated an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in the middle of a large crowd of civilians.” Nothing in this quoted statement is accurate. Wars are not won with false statements. The refusal of the U.S. officials to acknowledge the truth is disturbing and it reveals how dazed and confused Western officials remain regarding suicide bombers.
One cannot hope to counter an enemy tactic with dishonesty or by broadly smearing every Taliban attack as simply an act of terror. The objective facts are that an Afghan citizen drove his bicycle into a U.S./Afghan patrol and detonated a bomb. Regardless of whether one disagrees with the motives or philosophy of that person, it took courage to do so. The Pentagon has tried to spin and then dismiss these suicide attacks as “Islamic extremism,” which is the convenient catch-all excuse, but this type of military tactic did not originate with Islam. Jewish militants used suicide as a political statement in 73 A.D. at Masada and potentially at 67 A.D. at Gamla (although the deaths at Gamla are open to dispute). Three hundred Spartans and others essentially committed suicide in 480 B.C. at Thermopylae, as did hundreds of Japanese Kamikaze pilots in 1945. In the critically acclaimed American movie “Apocalypse Now,” a young Vietnamese girl, desperate to stop an American attack on her village, runs up to an American helicopter and throws an explosive charge into it. She is then hunted down and killed by a helicopter gunship.
Not only have suicidal attacks been carried out for thousands of years, but suicide bomber attacks have been occurring since the mid-1600’s. This is not a new phenomena. The British military essentially invented the modern suicide bomber. It began with an extraordinarily callous British decision to create a class of cannon-fodder soldiers. They were called “Grenadiers,” after the French word for grenade. The initial, calculating idea was that it was expensive to train and equip soldiers who would die quickly in the opening phases of the battle, so the plan was to forcibly recruit uneducated Britons, give them grenades and send them out to attack fortified enemy positions. The casualty rates were enormous, but that protected the “real” soldiers who then followed the grenadiers into battle. The grenadier casualties were so high that it was considered near-suicidal to participate. These soldiers were called “forlorn hope” troops. The Dutch called them “verloren hoop” or lost heap soldiers, while in French they were “les enfants perdus” or simply, the lost children. On June 17, 1775, American revolutionaries had their first encounter with these disposable soldiers. British General William Howe used them in the first wave of his attack up Bunker Hill in Boston.
The low-tech suicide bomber phenomena has proven resistant to all high-tech U.S. solutions. The basic problems within the Pentagon are (1) senior U.S. military officials apparently cannot comprehend that an enemy soldier would be willing to die for their cause. That says more about the senior ranks of the U.S. military than it says about the Taliban. Within the General and Flag ranks of the U.S. military, career advancement trumps ethics, the safety of American soldiers and winning wars. Within that sordid climate, dying for one’s country or religion is an alien concept; and (2) senior U.S. military officials do not want to analyze and understand the suicide bombers because their findings would be politically unacceptable.
Just like the 9/11 hijackers, most suicide bombers are not brainwashed and they most likely are not religious extremists. The scary truth that the Pentagon has tried to hide since 9/11 is that most suicide bombers are ordinary people who are driven by their perceptions of patriotism and nationalism, or by revenge motives. Terrorist and insurgent groups rarely have to resort to propaganda to motivate these bombers. There are more than enough excesses, mistakes, senseless policies, dishonesty and corruption in the West and within Western supported governments to properly motivate the bombers. Part of the solution to the suicide bomber is to change the reality that motivates them, but this solution has been rejected by the West. Resolution of the Palestinian, Chechnya, Southwest Sahara and Kashmir conflicts is at a standstill; despots rule Central Asia, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Vietnam and other countries, all with Western support; the West is currently supporting the second invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia and it continues to prop up private militias and warlords in Afghanistan.
Within the United States, plodding law enforcement officials such as FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Ralph Boelter mimic their Pentagon counterparts. Director Boelter, in an absurd keynote speech last week, vaguely attributed U.S. domestic terrorism to people who become “radicalized” by watching the Internet, as if Satan is using the Internet to hypnotize and brainwash anyone who enters it. If the Internet generates anti-American opinions, it is because it conveys information (true, false and partially true/false). That data changes attitudes and positions, which prompts new conclusions, that generates courses of action. Again, while one cannot change false information, one can correct true facts that contribute to the problem by curtailing the excesses, mistakes, senseless policies, dishonesty and corruption within the West. It is not enough to apprehend (before and after the fact), but to address some of the root causes of radicalization (i.e., prevention).
This self-imposed conceptual barrier to understanding and combating terrorists and suicide bombers resulted in last week’s ridiculous press release of General Allen regarding the Faryab bombing. As the Obama Administration is unwilling to talk candidly about the suicide bombers, it is left with simply dismissing them as brainwashed crazies. As it is unwilling to acknowledge the seemingly inexhaustible Taliban supply of suicide bombers, the Obama Administration fails to understand the scope of its problems in Afghanistan. It is not that the U.S. has no countermeasures to the suicide bombers, but that it has no apparent idea where to even begin.
What is also left unsaid is that the U.S. is once again seemingly supporting the wrong army. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong displayed tenacity, courage and skill, while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops tended to demonstrate opposite qualities. Today in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army has a 25% annual desertion rate and habitual drug use as high as 85% in some units. This information does not appear in Pentagon or NATO press releases as military officials once again wish they were advising the other army (i.e., the one where troops are willing to launch suicide attacks in order to defeat their enemy).
The American news media tends to focus on the spectacular means that suicide bombers have chosen for their sacrificial attacks, while ignoring the facts regarding those means. They are the result of a combination of desperation (as suicide bombers have limited availability to modern weapons) and military logic (as they have determined that this method of attack has the potential to produce the greatest number of enemy casualties and generate the most fear and uncertainty among their enemy). As stated before, the tactic continues to be a brilliant military and political success.
While Pentagon officials dither, Afghan soldiers and civilians, along with American soldiers, sailors and Marines continue to be maimed and die, and the war is being slowly lost. How many of those casualties are preventable will never be known. What is certain is that these “terrorists” are winning and they are winning because the U.S. has its collective head in the sand. Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in part because he could not comprehend the scope, depth and motivation of the forces that were rallying against him. Wars are often lost for the same reasons.
The American and Afghan peoples deserve to have non-political and professional soldiers directing their wars. The truth allows for a winning strategy, while slogans, oblivious denials and spin lead to defeat.