Pakistani and Afghan authorities have repeatedly accused each other of failing to provide adequate security to prevent cross-border suicide attacks by Taliban-linked militants.
Until recently, however, little publicly available research has been conducted to understand or explain the way suicide bombings have been proliferating in Afghanistan since 2005.
But a recent report by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) suggests that people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are in a state of denial about the problem.
"The important big picture is that Afghans like to tell you that [suicide attacks] are a Pakistani phenomenon. Pakistan has been long saying that this not just [Pakistan]. And this is exactly what the report said," says Christine Fair, the coordinator and main author of the UN report.
"There certainly is a Pakistani component, and it is a very important component," she adds. "But even if Pakistan went away, you'd still have a largely Afghan-driven insurgency. Obviously, Pakistan has an impact upon that. But taking away Pakistan, the insurgency doesn't go away."
Fair says suicide bombings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas appear to be a cross-border phenomenon. And she says the problem is not going to be resolved as long as Afghan and Pakistani officials keep assigning the blame to each other.
"The report was the first [report] to actually say that this is truly a problem where the solution resides in both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan," Fair says. "The Pakistanis were apparently outraged by the report, with the argument that [it] overestimates the Pakistani involvement. I was rather shocked by that, because, from my point of view, the report's useful intervention was that it actually drove home to Afghans that they have to stop putting the blame for this squarely on Pakistan's shoulders -- because, clearly, Afghans have got issues which need to be fixed domestically as well."
The tactic was rarely seen in Afghanistan until 2005. Since then, suicide attacks have become increasingly common in Afghanistan, running at a rate of about three to four per week.
Debunking Myths About Afghan Role
The report is based upon several types of data. Fair first used a UN database that provided reliable information about the locations of suicide bombings and the number of people killed. She also was given access and allowed to interview 25 would-be suicide bombers who had failed or refused to carry out attacks they had been trained for. All of those would-be bombers were Afghans who, with few exceptions, had spent time in Pakistan. Fair also was allowed to interview Afghan police and intelligence officers about how they had reached their official conclusions about the backgrounds of suicide bombers.
The report notes that suicide attacks were very rare in Afghanistan until 2005 but have become increasingly commonplace since then. It says the increase in suicide attacks may suggest that more attackers and explosive materials are readily available, that planning takes place continuously, or that a series of attacks are planned where local coordinators have the power within a "mission command" structure to order attacks when they are prepared. But Fair stresses that Afghan authorities must start admitting to their own people that the majority of the suicide attacks in Afghanistan are carried out with help from Afghans.
"As we all know, there is Pakistani involvement," she says. "There is recruitment across the border in the tribal areas, and madrasahs pre-figure prominently. We all know this. There is nothing to debate on this issue. But there is a larger point that most Afghans are not familiar with: there are Afghans who are involved, not only in the capacity of suicide attackers, but they are also involved obviously in safe houses. They are obviously involved in the production of bombs. They are involved in getting bombers to targets. At every point in the provision of suicide attacks, an Afghan is necessary. This is [a finding] that the Afghans need to embrace and they need to deal with."
Significantly, Fair says the report contradicts some media reports and assessments that expertise from insurgents in Iraq is being imported directly into Afghanistan by Taliban-linked militants. "There is all this speculation that these guys are learning lessons from Iraq. We don't see any evidence for it. It differs hugely," Fair says.
"We are not seeing the technical innovation that is often talked about in the media," she continues. "The bombs are not getting any better. Afghan [militants] are continuing to use what has worked for them. We just do not see any evidence that this is an Iraqi phenomenon imported to Afghanistan."
Fair adds that the "best parallel is actually across the border in Pakistan. At about the same time that suicide bombing was being developed and deployed against security forces in Afghanistan, it was also being developed and deployed in Pakistan along the tribal area. And suicide bombing was being used in Pakistan long before it came to be used in Iraq."
Fair says one of the most frustrating aspects of her work in Afghanistan on the report was to discover how quick Afghan police and security officials are to announce after a suicide attack that the bomber was a foreigner. Fair questioned those Afghan authorities about many suicide bombings and says she discovered that the backgrounds of most suicide bombers in Afghanistan are not adequately investigated.
"I was told repeatedly that these attackers are not Afghans -- that they are Pakistanis, 18 to 24 years old, from [the] Waziristan [tribal areas of Pakistan]," Fair says. "And I would repeatedly ask how [they had reached such a conclusion.] And they -- be it a chief of police or be it an [officer in Afghanistan's] National Directorate for Security -- would repeatedly tell me they knew this because 'the [bomber's] feet survived and the feet are brown. Our feet aren't as brown as this. These are clearly Pakistani.' Or similar claims would advanced about remains of the head.
"None of these people are forensic anthropologists. There is absolutely no way you can distinguish an Afghan foot from a Pakistani foot. This is called wishful thinking. So until the Afghans really take seriously the investigations into these attackers, as do other countries that confront suicide bombings, this facilitates the collective imagination [among Afghans] that these [suicide bombers] are all Pakistanis."
Fair says Afghan suicide bombers often appear to be less educated and poorer than suicide bombers elsewhere in the world. She says there is only anecdotal evidence about this, because of the failure of Afghan authorities to adequately investigate the background of suicide bombers. But she says evidence also suggests that many Afghans recruited as suicide attackers tend to be social rejects -- people who are mentally ill, alcoholics, or even drug addicts -- who see a suicide attack as a way to redeem themselves and restore honor to their family.
But Fair concludes that the lack of video wills by Afghanistan's suicide bombers suggests that ordinary Afghans are still not willing to glorify suicide bombers as martyrs.