The Emerging Threat of Female Suicide Bombers in Afghanistan

Written by  Matthew P. Dearing

Amidst the disarray following General McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone, a much less reported but profound event marked the course of the insurgency in Afghanistan. The recent female suicide operation in eastern Afghanistan reveals not only a paradigm shift in Taliban insurgent tactics, but also a mutation of the organization’s founding ideology.

On June 20th, dressed in a long-flowing burqa, Bibi Halima walked up to American and Afghan soldiers on patrol in Kunar province with the intention of detonating explosives attached to her body. In recent months, soldiers have had reason to be skeptical of burqa-clad pedestrians. Many of the Haqqani Network’s fedayeen tactics in eastern Afghanistan have included men disguised in burqas, allowing them to approach or breach heavily cordoned buildings and district centers prior to detonating explosives. But as NATO and Afghan counterinsurgency experience heightened, security forces became well adept at reading bodily gestures and cues that distinguished a man from a woman underneath the large Afghan dress. Until recently, this was a valuable force protection measure since not one of the over 450 suicide attacks in Afghanistan since 2001, was perpetrated by a woman. In comparison, women have executed nearly one in ten suicide attacks in Iraq. NATO troops could rest assured that of the many insurgent tactics adapted from Iraq to Afghanistan, female suicide bombings was one that would likely never emerge.

But as in all insurgencies, there is little a counterinsurgent can be certain. The element of surprise is probably the greatest tool an insurgent holds over the parties attempting to glue together the fragile pieces of an orderly society in Afghanistan. Not only have the Taliban opened themselves up to a new range of criticism by moderate and fence-sitting Pashtuns, whom the Afghan government increasingly seeks to win over, but they will also likely find cleavages develop within their own ranks that see the inclusion of women in the insurgency as dishonorable and outside the realm of “acceptable” jihad.

There are plenty of practical reasons the Taliban would want to use women as suicide bombers. Given cultural constraints, men are forbidden from searching women, leaving insurgents a gap in security measures that they can exploit. In a recent graduating class of cadets from the Kabul Police Academy, only ten of the over 1,600 graduates were women, ensuring that few women will be searched in at least the near future. However, until recently, the Taliban and associated groups have largely avoided implementing women in the insurgency for several reasons. First, there are larger social and historical considerations such as norms and collective memory within Afghanistan that have prevented Taliban tacticians from utilizing women in insurgent operations. Few women participated in the anti-Soviet jihad beyond the important, but less combative supportive roles, such as serving as couriers, conditioning weapons, or preparing the dead for burial. Ever since the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, women have been relegated to second-class citizenship.

Second, until recently, the Taliban have resided in a fairly permissible environment, controlling large swaths of territory including urban district centers and rural villages throughout the country, as well as having cross-border access in Pakistan. Today, in many respects due to the success of counterinsurgency operations run by General McChrystal and his team, the Taliban have lost vital areas of sanctuary, elements of command and control have been infiltrated and broken down, and operations have been successfully countered and prevented due to a transfer of much needed assets from Iraq to Afghanistan. Thus, deferment of female suicide bombers is less appealing as the organization becomes increasingly threatened.

Third, martyrdom has been a convenient rhetorical strategy that wraps a variety of economic, political and social grievances around the all-inclusive narrative of jihad. This can be seen through war ballads, poetry, and personal testimonies distributed via 21st century technology. Women have always played a significant role in Afghanistan as poets espousing the heroics of their men in combat and as defenders of a family’s honor. However, under Taliban tyranny, women were noticeably absent in resistance literature, oral narratives or the Taliban movement in general. Thus, the choice to engage women in violent jihad will soon test the viability of the organization’s ideology that has long positioned women as outsiders.

We may never know who the real Bibi Halima was, nor why she chose to kill herself for an organization that would rather hold women in a position of permanent servitude. But the act she participated in will undoubtedly stand as a changing point in the Afghan conflict. Will more women follow her lead or resist the temptation of asymmetric violence? U.S. and Afghan forces would be wise to capitalize on this moment to lower that risk and build partnerships with a broader segment of society. First, it presents a significant opportunity to characterize the violent, inhumane nature of the Taliban. Second, it shows there is a deep ideological divide between the Taliban’s foundational ideology and what the organization adopts as legitimate conduct today. When approaching options for reconciliation, this can be a notable point of contention between “moderate” Taliban and irreconcilables. Third, there must be a doubled effort to train female Afghan police and intelligence operatives in order to be the eyes and ears preventing future female suicide bombers. Finally, the West should continue to pressure Afghanistan’s government to ensure women have a legitimate voice and opportunity in the new Afghan society. While some women may feel pressured to work with the Taliban, if viable options exist, such as an amnesty or call-in program for potential suicide bombers, the few female bombers who emerge may think twice about ending their life in such a tragic fashion.

Matthew P. Dearing is a PhD candidate in the Security Studies Program at the Naval Postgraduate School and a member of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs. This article was previously published in the Small Wars Journal.