Are Afghans the worst suicide bombers in the world? That's the conclusion of U.S. academic Brian Glyn Williams, an assistant professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In a fascinating recent essay published on the website of conservative think tank The Jamestown Foundation, Williams analyzes the success rate of suicide attacks in Afghanistan over the past two years. Though attacks are getting more frequent, Williams found that more than four out of every 10 attempted suicide bombings in Afghanistan kills only the attacker. "Such unusual bomber-to-victim death statistics are, of course, heartening both for coalition troops who have described the Afghan suicide bombers as 'amateurs' and for the Afghan people, who are usually the victims of the clumsy bombings," writes Williams.
Why the high failure rate? One reason, Williams suggests, is the Pashtun social code of Pashtunwali, which values "acts of martial valor" and revenge. Driven by this code Afghan suicide bombers are more likely to go after hard military targets rather than softer targets such as markets or restaurants as happens in Iraq. The deadliest bombings in Afghanistan over the past two years have been the work of Arabs, not Afghans.
Then there's plain ineptitude. Afghan police and military personnel say that the young men the Taliban recruit to be suicide bombers are regularly "deranged, retarded, mentally unstable or on drugs," according to Williams. That's a view shared by Waheed Muzhda, an Afghan political analyst. "The suicide bombers don't have enough knowledge of how and exactly when to detonate themselves," Muzhda, a former foreign ministry official during the Taliban regime, told TIME. "Most of them are not educated. It has happened many times that these suicide bombers' explosives detonate before they reach the target. The result is the death of suicide bomber himself."
United Nations officials in Kabul also told Williams that some young Afghan men become suicide bombers as a way to make money for their families. There is anecdotal evidence that a few such men deliberately detonate their deadly payloads so as to minimize the number of people they might kill. Officials point to a suicide bomber who blew himself up in the toilet of a Kabul Internet cafe in 2005 rather than in the cafe itself. The recent recruitment of young boys this year Afghan officials stopped a six-year-old before he could detonate himself is also behind the low success rate.
Ali Shah Paktiawal, the head of the Criminal Investigation Department in Kabul says most of the thanks should go to improved policing. "Our police are getting better day by day," he says. "They are more equipped now than before and they have become more active." Whatever the cause, few Afghans will complain if suicide bombers there continue to take only their own lives. With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul