A suicide bomber maneuvered a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) alongside a convoy of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops May 17 in Afghanistan, killing 18 people and injuring 47 others. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the VBIED contained 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds) of explosives. This is likely an exaggeration, since the attack did not cause as much damage as would be expected from such a large device.
At approximately 8:20 a.m. May 17, on the western outskirts of Kabul, a suicide bomber maneuvered a van packed with explosives alongside five unmarked SUVs carrying International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops. The resulting explosion killed five U.S. soldiers and one Canadian soldier riding in the convoy and 12 civilians, most of whom were riding in a bus that happened to be passing by the convoy at the time. Forty-seven others, including ISAF troops traveling in the convoy, were injured in the blast. Within about eight hours, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid called the Associated Press and said the Taliban were responsible for the attack, claiming the operative was targeting the ISAF vehicles and that the vehicle-borne explosive device (VBIED) used consisted of 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds) of explosive material. (click here to enlarge image) The claim that the attack was targeting the ISAF convoy certainly appears to be true, but the claim that the VBIED consisted of 750 kilograms of explosives seems to be an exaggeration. A device of that size would result in massive destruction, leaving a large, easily noticeable blast seat in the road where the device detonated, obliterating nearby structures (such as walls and buildings lining the street) and killing anyone remotely near the blast site. However, after assessing images from the scene, we are unable to discern any well-formed or significantly large blast seat; the images show walls and lamp posts lining the street that are largely intact, and the death toll (though it will likely amount to more than 18) seems much lower than what we would expect from a device of that size. By comparison, a VBIED that was detonated Sept. 20, 2008, outside the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad contained approximately 907 kilograms of explosives, left a blast seat 9 meters (30 feet) deep in pavement, killed 54 people (most of whom were in a hotel more than 30 meters away) and destroyed the facade of the hotel along with all the vehicles in the parking lot. The May 17 attack near Kabul does not even come close to the level of destruction seen in the Marriott bombing, leading us to believe the claim that 750 kilograms of explosives were used was likely overstating the bomb's size. The target in the bombing also is inconsistent with the use of so much explosive material in a VBIED. A vehicle carrying such a large quantity of explosives would be expected to target a fixed building like the Marriott Hotel and not a convoy, which is a mobile, quick-moving and relatively thin-skinned target more effectively hit by a lighter and more maneuverable VBIED (if not by a fixed IED). Loading down a van with that quantity of explosives is not necessary for an attack against a convoy of lightly armored SUVs, and it could actually prevent the attack from being successful. The Taliban attack targeted the ISAF troops as they were traveling near Darul Aman palace on the western outskirts of Kabul. Camp Julien, a base used by U.S. forces for training Afghan troops, is less than 1 kilometer away from the attack site. It is not unusual for ISAF troops to travel around Kabul in unmarked SUVs, and it appears that the Taliban exploited that practice by striking the convoyed SUVs, which had little or no armor. More heavily armored vehicles such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles or up-armored Humvees, both commonly used in Afghanistan, are much less vulnerable to VBIED attacks. While the targeted SUVs were unmarked, it would not have taken much imagination on the Taliban's part to assume they contained ISAF troops. Taliban operatives could easily have observed the SUVs leaving one of the nearby ISAF bases and tracked them. Also, convoys of late-model SUVs in Kabul are typically a sign that the occupants are not local civilians. Reports indicate that the VBIED made a direct hit against one of the SUVs and that its occupants most likely bore the brunt of the bomb's force. Other civilians in the area at the time of the blast (rush hour) were likely killed or injured by flying debris or by overturning vehicles. The attack was the most deadly for ISAF troops in Kabul in eight months. The city continues to see periodic Taliban raids on civilian and military targets, and this will continue for the foreseeable future. VBIED attacks, in particular, are very difficult to prevent in an open city like Kabul. The attackers did not even have to penetrate the heart of the city, but remained on the outskirts, beyond most of the security checkpoints in place designed to prevent such attacks. And the smaller size of the bomb, despite Taliban claims, made it easier to assemble, smuggle in and deploy than a larger VBIED. The Taliban will continue to periodically remind Western forces and the Afghan government that they can still strike at the capital, but the May 17 attack does not indicate that the security mission in the city is failing.