Suicide car bombs vs `precision' bombs

Published : Oct 06, 2006 00:00 IST

U.S. soldiers guard the site of a suicide car bomb attack on a U.S. military convoy in Kabul on September 8. - PAUL GARWOOD/AP

U.S. soldiers guard the site of a suicide car bomb attack on a U.S. military convoy in Kabul on September 8. - PAUL GARWOOD/AP

The United States' bombs that use the latest technology cause far more civilian deaths than the Taliban's suicide car bombs.

And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honour and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.

- George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra.

WHILE the United States military and the mainstream corporate media ceaselessly extol the surgical precision of new bomb technology, they equally condemn the random death and violence resulting from suicide car bombs. I analyse these claims with data available from the Afghan war theatre and demonstrate that under plausible assumptions exactly the reverse is true: a U.S. precision bomb is far more deadly to Afghan civilians than a Taliban suicide car bomb when adjustment is made for the differing delivery cost of each. After all, one of the major justifications for precision weaponry is that the increased costs to develop and produce such weapons are worthwhile as they allegedly save lives of innocents in proximity to the strike target - greater precision is allegedly being purchased. Such large development and delivery expenses are simply out of reach of most. Mike Davis has argued that the car bomb is the "poor man's air force".1

With the approaching fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, various journalistic mainstream accounts have attempted to present summary data on "major" suicide attacks carried out in Afghanistan.2 These compilations are sorely inadequate. A more academic study has been carried out by Hekmat Karzai and Seth Jones (2006) under the auspices of the Rand Corporation and includes a "terrorist incident database".3 The authors document the spiralling number of attempted suicide attacks in Afghanistan:

Of the total 40 suicide (2002-2005) attacks, 15 occurred in Kandahar, 12 in Kabul, three in Khost, two each in Helmand and Nangarhar, and five in other provinces.4 During the first six months of 2006, the number was 38. A Reuters (2006) compilation for the period January 2005-August 28, 2006, reported 64 suicide bombing attacks which killed 181 persons (excluding suicide bombers) and injured 273 persons.5 Every indication is that this number will continue to rise. As I argue in a forthcoming book, suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices represent a very effective least-cost tactic employed by the Taliban and associates.6

Robert Pape (2003) has convincingly documented that "suicide terrorism" has been rising across the world and that it follows a strategic logic. It has risen simply because "it pays".7 The increase in suicide attacks in Afghanistan has been well analysed by Karzai and Jones.8

These authors say that Afghan resistance fighters have successfully tapped into existing knowledge developed elsewhere (especially in Iraq); Al Qaeda and the Taliban have concluded that suicide bombing is more effective than other tactics in killing Afghan and foreign occupation forces (for example, the authors mention data that when resistance fighters attack U.S. and other foreign forces directly in Afghanistan, there is only a 5 per cent probability of inflicting casualties - my data indicates a 17 per cent chance by using suicide bombers); Al Qaeda and the Taliban believe that suicide bombing, by increasing the general level of insecurity, hampers reconstruction; and lastly, suicide bombing attacks provide high visibility for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which was not the case during the guerilla war of 2002-2005.

In Table 1, I present a disaggregated summary of suicide bombing attacks actually carried out in Afghanistan between the first aborted attempt (on July 19, 2002) and the very large explosion in Kabul on September 8, 2006.

The admittedly incomplete data set indicates that Afghan civilian casualties account for some 65 per cent of suicide car bomb attack victims (contrary to the numbers - 84 per cent - bandied about by the occupation forces).9 U.S./North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military personnel accounted for about 17 per cent of the car bomb deaths. The relative accuracy of the car bomb is further enhanced insofar as many of the reported car bomb attacks succeeded in injuring members of the U.S./NATO forces. Sometimes, the target of the suicide attackers is a high-profile Afghan foe as in the March 12, 2006, suicide attack in Kabul, which killed two civilians but succeeded in wounding the target, former Afghan President Sibghatullah Mujaddedi.

Suicide car bomb attacks are typically carried out in civilian-rich areas (as Table 1 indicates), and as such inflict death and injury upon innocent bystanders. In order to make a comparison with civilian casualties caused by the U.S.' "precision bombing", one must choose U.S./NATO bombing attacks carried out in a comparable universe, namely civilian-rich areas.

I have chosen the relatively cheap GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided 500-pound bomb as the comparator with a car bomb. The GBU-12 is delivered by a variety of aircraft, including the F-16 fighter-bomber, which has seen extensive duty in Afghanistan.10 The bomb has a reported lethal radius of some 750 feet (225 metres), which in civilian-rich areas is very large. The laser-guided bomb costs $19,000 (1995) to make.11 The per-hour cost of flying for an F-16 is estimated at $5,000.12 Assuming that a bombing mission takes three hours, the delivery cost is $15,000. The total cost of delivering a GBU-12 bomb is hence $34,000. A used 1992 Toyota Corolla van in Kabul - the Toyota Corolla is the suicide car bomber's favoured vehicle - with 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometres) on it, sells for about $3,000 on the market.13 Assuming that a suicide bomber purchases a vehicle for $1,500 and that his expenses amount to $150 (the explosives are deemed free as they come from Russian or other munitions in ample supply strewn across Afghanistan), the delivery cost of the suicide bomb is conservatively estimated to be $1,650, a figure that would be considerably lower if adjusted for purchasing power parity.

The stated rationale for "precision weapons" is to spend money on their development and production to reduce "collateral damage". To deliver a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb carried by an F-16 "costs" some $34,000, as compared to the suicide bomb's $1,650. In other words, alleged greater accuracy is purchased by greater expenditures. How much greater accuracy?

A plausible assumption would be to assume a positive linear relationship between bomb accuracy and cost. Since the GBU-12 bomb costs 21 times more to deliver than the suicide bomb, we expect it to be 21 times more accurate.

Table 1 indicates that 65 per cent of suicide bomb victims are Afghan civilians, that is, to kill 10 U.S./NATO occupation troops, 18.6 Afghan civilians will perish. If the precision bomb is 21 times more accurate, then to kill 10 Taliban would result in less than one civilian death (more precisely .89 = 18.6/21). Table 2 examines the number of expected civilian deaths caused by the dropping of different kinds of American-made "precision" bombs and, with two different estimates, of civilians killed in car suicide bombings (for instance, 50 per cent, 65 per cent and 84 per cent). The two bombs are the GBU-12 (see above) and the larger GBU-10 and GBU-16 laser-guided bombs which both cost $25,000 (1995) to produce. I employ both my estimate (derived from Table 1) of the percentage of civilians killed in a suicide car bomb attack (65 per cent) and that postulated (with no evidence presented) by the U.S. military, namely 84 per cent. Again, I assume a linear relationship between cost and precision; for instance, a GBU-10/GBU-16 bomb costs $25,000 whereas a Taliban suicide attack with a Toyota Corolla costs $1,650, hence the expected precision of the GBU-10 should be 24 times greater than that of the suicide bomb.

The cost per flying hour of the F-16 is $5,000 while that of the land-based F-15C/D is estimated at $6,000, which would make the numbers above even smaller.14 Were the GPS-guided bombs chosen instead of the laser-guided bombs, the bomb delivery cost would be only slightly less, for instance, a JDAM kit to convert a free-fall "dumb" bomb costs some $18,000-$20,000.15

So the expected innocent civilian death varies from less than a single civilian to two and a half. Empirical evidence in Afghanistan reveals that many more civilians die than Taliban fighters when a "precision" bomb is dropped in a civilian-rich area.

Ample evidence exists - see my various databases on U.S/NATO bombing attacks16 - which indicates that when high-explosive "precision" bombs are dropped in civilian-rich areas, many civilians are killed or injured. In the recent NATO assault upon the Panjwayi district southwest of Kandahar, local residents reported that for every Taliban fighter killed, three Afghan civilians perished.17 On September 3, a jet fighter bombed three compounds in Ghaljain, a tiny cluster of mud-walled compounds near the village of Zangabad, killing not only seven Taliban fighters but also an elderly man and 13 women and children.18 Similar reports abound describing bombing in Helmand during the past months, which killed relatively few Taliban members but plenty of civilians. An attack in July 2006 upon a string of villages north of Tarin Kot in Uruzgan reportedly killed at least 10 civilians but only four or five Taliban. The stories in the boxes illustrate the frequent effects of `precision' bombing.

As I have documented elsewhere, a rising relative share of precision bombs in total tonnage dropped is correlated with higher rates of civilians killed for every 10,000 tonnes of bombs dropped.19 I do not deny that when U.S/NATO war planes bomb more isolated camps of the Taliban or its associates, civilian deaths are non-existent, but such a comparison is inappropriate insofar as one must compare similar universes (namely, civilian-rich areas).

The conclusion is inescapable. When using delivery-adjusted cost data as a proxy for accuracy, U.S./NATO "precision" bombing slaughters many more innocent Afghan civilians than does a Taliban suicide car bomber.20

My data in the Afghan Victim Memorial Project indicate that to date, during 2006, U.S. and NATO attacks killed at least 350 innocent civilians. What NATO's spokesman, U.S. Army Major Luke Knittig, commenting on the alleged 173 people killed during 2006 by suicide bombings, told assembled mainstream reporters in Kabul on September 12, 2006, needs to be corrected (from his words in parentheses) to: Such blatant disregard for human life and potential undertaken by NATO/U.S. (insurgents) who callously ask to be called peacekeepers (mujahedeen) cannot be more clear.21 The "poor man's air force" turns out to be much less deadly to innocents than the rich man's one.

Marc W. Herold is in the Deptartment of Economics, Whittemore School of Business & Economics, USA.

1. Mike Davis, "The Poor Man's Air Force: A History of the Car Bomb (Part 1)", (April 12, 2006) at index.mhtml?pid=76140

2. As by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Afghanistan: A Chronology of Suicide Attacks Since 2001", (January 17, 2006) at featuresarticle/2006/01/9ac36a59-d683-4189-a2b9-94fe5fbf32ad.html and Associated Press, "List of Major Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan", Associated Press (September 8, 2006) at

3. Hekmat Karzai and Seth G. Jones, "How to Curb Rising Suicide Terrorism in Afghanistan", (July 18, 2006) at commentary/071806CSM.html

4. Hekmat Karzai, "Afghanistan and the Logic of Suicide Terrorism", IDSS Commentaries (Singapore) (March 27, 2006) at

5. "FACTBOX - Key Facts about Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan", Reuters (07:30 GMT, August 29, 2006).

6. In Afghanistan como un Espaco Vacio (Madrid: Ediciones AKAL, forthcoming 2007). See also Scott Baldauf, "Taliban Turn to Suicide Attacks", Christian Science Monitor (Feb 3, 2006) at which also discusses how the Taliban perceive suicide bombing fitting within Islam.

7. Robert A. Pape, "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism", American Political Science Review 97 (2003): 343-361. See also Dying_to_Win:_The_Strategic_Logic_of_Suicide_Terrorism and Carl Robichaud, "The Proliferation of Suicide Bombings", The Century Foundation (June 10, 2005) at

8. Karzai and Jones, op. cit.

9. And uncritically parroted in the mainstream press as in "Afghanistan Suicide Bombings Take Mostly Civilian Toll", Lincoln Tribune (September 3, 2006) at which cites A recent NATO count reports that during 2006, some 173 people died in Afghanistan from suicide bombings (151 of whom were Afghan civilians), though again no disaggregated data is presented (see "NATO: Afghan Suicide Bombings Killed 173", Associated Press (September 12, 2006) at ). My data in Table 1 shows that there were 143 deaths from suicide bombings to-date in 2006 and 36 U.S., NATO and Afghan authority deaths, giving a ratio of 75% civilian deaths.

10. The F-16 "Fighting Falcon" began flying over Afghanistan from fixed locations (non carrier-based) on October 22, 2001. The four Canadians killed in 2002 outside Kandahar in a friendly-fire incident met their death from a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb dropped by an F-16. The attack in Iraq upon Aub Musab al- Zarqawi was carried out by two F-16's with two 500-pound, GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. See also

11. As compared to $25,000 for the GBU-10 (2,000 lb) and the GBU-16 (1,000 pound) bombs (1995). Cost data from U.S. General Accounting Office, Weapons Acquisition. Precision Guided Munitions in Inventory, Production, and Development (Washington D.C.: U.S. G.A.O. National Security and International Affairs Division, B-260458, June 23, 1995), p. 12, at

12. Harold Kennedy, "Simulation Reshaping Military Training. Technology Jumping from Teenagers' Computers to Pilots' Cockpits", National Defense Magazine (India) (November 1999) at

13. "Kabul Taxi Drivers Favor Used Japanese Cars", Kyodo News (December 4, 2001) at

14. Data of the CPFL for the F-15C/D is drawn from Capt. Kevin P. Dawson (USAF) and Capt. Jeremy A. Howe (USAF), "Analyzing Air Force Flying-Hour Costs", Air Force Journal of Logistics 30, 2 (Summer 2006): 22-27

15. "GBU-29/30/31/32 JDAM. Joint Direct Attack Munitions", (at

16. At mwherold, especially data on individual incidents in the Afghan Victim Memorial Project.

17. See "NATO Says Offensive is Cornering Taliban", Reuters (04.51 AM ET September 5, 2006) at

18. Graeme Smith, "Civilian Deaths Reported in Operation Medusa", Globe & Mail (September 8, 2006)

19. As for example in my "Urban Dimensions of the Punishment of Afghanistan by U.S. Bombs", in Stephen Graham (ed), Cities, War, and Terrorism. Towards an Urban Geopolitics (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), Table 17.2 on p. 316.

20. Iraq Body Count reported a similar finding, namely that for the period March 20, 2003 - March 19, 2005, civilians killed per incident by aircraft attacks numbered 13.5 whereas those from suicide vehicle attacks were 10.9 (from A Dossier of Civilian Casualties 2003-2005 at ). The recent Israeli bombing in Lebanon where F-16's dropped "precision" weapons in civilian-rich areas provides yet another example of where the civilian casualties far out-numbered military (Hezbollah) casualties, e.g., the ratio was about 10 to 1 or 2.

21. "NATO: Afghan Suicide Bombings Killed 173", op. cit.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment