As president Obama prepares to approve deployment orders sending 20,000-plus troops to Afghanistan this year, he and his commanders might take note of a recent study on suicide bombings.
The number of such deadly attacks rises sharply as the U.S. has increased its troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a study presented at a Washington conference on combating terrorism this month.
The study by University of Chicago Professor Robert A. Pape is, in effect, a warning to commanders in Afghanistan.
Pape said at the CATO Institute conference he opposes a larger U.S. footprint in favor of "off-shore" deployments "to prevent the rise of a new generation of suicide bombers trying to kill us."
Pape’s study, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," compiled statistics provided by the U.S. military and other sources.
The data showed that, as the Iraq troop surge of about 40,000 troops got underway in 2007, suicide bombings — the work of al Qaeda and related Sunni Muslim groups — more than doubled, from 150 in 2006 to 350 in 2007. What’s more, in the first half of 2008, suicide bombers struck nearly 100 times, putting them on a course to exceed the 2006 level despite an otherwise big drop in overall violence in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, the numbers are even more striking. As the NATO-led mission spread from a Kabul-centric structure to forward operating bases around the country, suicide bomb strikes shot up, from less than 10 in 2004 to 130 in 2008.
There were 25,000 international troops in the country in 2004; about 50,000 in 2008. And this is happening in a country that repelled the Soviet occupation of the 1980s without ever resorting to suicide bombings. Iraq had never seen a suicide bombing until the 2003 allied invasion.
The vast majority of targets were NATO and Afghan military. With more American troops on the way, Pape said, the U.S. must brace for an even bigger onslaught. "This obviously bodes poorly," said Pape, whose academic career has included teaching air power strategy to Air Force officers.
"This is an extremely dangerous problem" he told the conference. "We simply don’t want to live in this world much longer."
Pape spoke on a panel of experts who examined the root causes of terrorism, an issue for which there is no consensus. But understanding what motivates people to wantonly kill civilians is seen by experts as essential to coming up with the best counter-terrorism policies.
Theories include poverty, political goals, Islamic expansion, and hatred of the West. Yet, when suicide bombers are preempted, they often tell interrogators they harbor few political or religious goals. Instead, they were attracted to the social benefits of joining a terror outfit, or talked into it by a friend or relative.
"There is increasing evidence people turn to terrorism for the social solidarity," said Max Abrahms, a Stanford University fellow and author of numerous papers on terrorism.
Abrahms said his research shows that no group has ever obtained its ultimate political goal through terrorism, and that voters often elect candidates who advocate the hardest line against such groups.
Pape noted that terrorists were able to force U.S. troops to leave Lebanon after blowing up a barracks with a truck bomb in 1983, killing 241 service members. But other panel members pointed out that Hezbollah, the Shiite terror group believed responsible, has yet to achieve its goal of a Lebanese Islamic state. In fact, Lebanese time and again opt for secular democratic rule despite Hezbollah’s best efforts to destabilize the country with the help of Syria and Iran.
"If you look at their success in getting allies out of Iraq, they were a stunning success," Pape said.
But then again, while some countries, such as Spain, withdrew their forces in the face of al Qaeda attacks, America has remained in Iraq and in fact increased troop levels while Iraq moved closer to democracy and built a more competent military.
James Forest, director of terrorism studies at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, said his research shows that communication — what an individual hears from his cleric or family — often determines whether the person is radicalized.
On a positive note, he pointed out that Saudi Arabia, a haven for harsh Islamic teachings, now allows moderate clerics to appear on state TV to argue against violence.
"Terrorism is a product of choice," Forest said.
"We don’t really known what causes terrorism," concluded Mia Bloom, an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. "It’s difficult to identify the cause."