My friend Sally spent several uncomfortable hours in a bunker in Kabul the other day because the combined military might of the U.S., NATO, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police could not stop a small band of insurgents from striking at the heart of the city with bombs and automatic weapons. The seven attackers all died, as they had known they would, but not before killing five Afghans and wounding dozens more. Sally was not harmed, but she and thousands of other residents of the Afghan capital were forced to hunker down as the seven-man suicide squad paralyzed Kabul for several hours. Which brings us to the question that has been asked again and again: How do we, we being the world in general, defend ourselves against the suicide bomber?
The question has been asked, and it has also been answered by a number of people, but the answer usually involves a restructuring of the known world. The solution to the suicide bomber involves taking our little tool kits and climbing inside the heads of a significant percentage of the planet's people and doing a little attitude adjustment - tighten a screw here, loosen a bolt there, disable one circuit, wire a new one. Can't be done? Hey, the bad guys, the scruffy gents living in caves in the Tora Bora mountains are doing it. Why can't the good guys do it?
A lot of people all over the world are willing to die for beliefs, for causes. Every army recruit, by simply putting on a uniform, signals that he or she is willing to die for their country. Every firefighter, every cop, every spy, every member of a presidential protection detail is willing to die in the line of duty, although most of them hope it doesn't come to that. Parents are willing to die to protect their children. But there's a big gap between a willingness to die for a cause and deliberately killing oneself for it. There's also a gap between a suicide and a suicide bomber. Many people commit suicide, but the vast majority of them don't seem to even think about taking others with them.
Former CIA agent Robert Baer has some insight into the mind of the suicide bomber, and it often turns out there isn't much of a mind there to begin with. Many suicide bombers are dumb kids who are almost totally ignorant of the world and disastrously easy for terrorists to manipulate. Don't forget, the profile of a terrorist is far different from the profile of the suicide bomber. The terrorist is often highly intelligent and well educated, able to impress and manipulate kids and use them as weapons.
Baer wrote a piece for The Times of London in 2007 recounting his meeting with a 17-year-old Pakistani boy who was caught in Afghanistan wearing a bomb vest with which he intended to kill the governor of Jalalabad. An accomplice, also 17, was also nabbed before the bomb could be detonated - it was the accomplice's role to remotely detonate the bomb if the kid wearing it had second thoughts. The actual thoughts of the would-be bomber, as revealed to Baer under interrogation, are cartoonish in their naivety but chilling in their conviction. He believed not just that he would be greeted by a heavenly host of virgins in paradise, but that the virgins would be at the site of the bombing, watching and waiting to take the bomber to paradise (where apparently his fragmented body would be made whole again so that he could frolic with the virgins). He believed that then-president Musharraf of Pakistan was a Jew, and that Christian invaders were killing innocent Muslims and raping their women. Of course those were not his own thoughts. They were driven into his malleable skull by the Taliban who recruited him.
It's a hearts and minds thing, in other well-worn words - a simple slogan, a dauntingly complex task. Which brings me to the question, has the U.S. military shot itself in its collective, booted foot, using a telescopic sight? ABC News discovered that scope sights used by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are inscribed with coded links to passages in the New Testament of the Bible. The sights are made by a Michigan company, Trijicon, and the inscriptions were said to be the idea of the company's founder, a "devout Christian" who died in a plane crash in 2003. Call me crazy, but won't the Taliban and al Qaeda seize on this as yet more proof of the "Christian Crusade" against Muslims? Why don't the soldiers simply go into battle waving the banner of the Knights Templar? How can we be so tone deaf?
For more information, see:
Filkins blog http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/kiwis-in-kabul/?scp=2&sq=kabul%20attack&st=cse
Rubin article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/world/asia/21taliban.html?hp
ABC News http://abcnews.go.com/story?id=9575794