While the use of suicide as a tactic seems abhorrent and even insane to most people in the West, the tactic must be carefully assessed and considered. After all, it is a weapon of choice for many of our enemies.
Prior to the latest incarnation of suicide tactics, the best known use of deliberate suicide in military operation was that of the Japanese. Near the end of WWII the Japanese developed a variety of suicide weapons, the best known being the Kamikaze. Whether it was a plane or mini-submarine, the objective was to direct the explosive laden craft into an American ship. As such, this tactic also introduced guided smart munitions. However, the smart part of the weapon was a human being.
Current suicide tactics use a similar technique-a human being guides a weapon to its target. In some cases, the weapon is a vehicle such as a plane (as in the 9/11 attacks) or an automobile. In other cases, the bomb is worn by the individual (typically as a vest). This enables attacks to be launched with precision (although the goal is often to create indiscriminate slaughter). There is also the obvious advantage of having a truly smart weapon system-a human can react to novel situations and respond to changes and obstacles.
Unlike in WWII, the suicide bombers of today also employ a basic form of stealth-they use civilian vehicles or disguise themselves as civilians or friendly forces. This is effective against conventional military forces in four ways. First, it provides the obvious advantage of disguise, thus enabling attackers to sometimes get past defenses and get in close to maximize damage. Second, most Western soldiers are initially reluctant to engage what appear to be civilians. Third, the knowledge that almost anyone or any vehicle could be about to involved in a suicide attack puts stress on the soldiers and thus begins to lower morale and effectiveness. Fourth, it increases the likelihood that soldiers will accidentally kill actual civilians, thus providing material for propaganda and turning the local civilians against soldiers.
Countering this tactic militarily requires building appropriate defenses, training soldiers to recognize the signs of a suicide bomber (behavior patterns, spotting the vest, and so on), having effective human management (such as knowing who is who and who is allowed where), and so on. Of course, this can be very challenging.
Suicide bombing can also be effective looked at it terms of losses and gains. In battle, the objective is to come out ahead in each encounter so that you gain more than the enemy. On a strategic level, the goal is to consistently come out ahead and gain a general advantage. This can be matter of killing more people than you lose to the enemy It can also be a matter of gaining a political advantage. Just like with economics, the goal is to get more with less. Do that better than the enemy, and you win.
Suicide bombing does provide that sort of potential. From a military standpoint, a suicide bomber will tend to be a low cost unit, low value unit. All that is needed is a human being who can wear a bomb, drive a vehicle, fly a plane, or steer a ship. They do not even have to do it that well-just well enough to hit something. In contrast, a Western soldier is a fairly expensive and high value unit in comparison. Even training a private takes months and a fair sum of money. As such, if a suicide bomber can kill a Western soldier, the suicide bomber’s side has come out ahead: they have traded a low value unit for a higher value unit. Further, suicide attacks can also create morale damage as well. In fact, one of the main purposes of such attacks is just that-to try to get the enemy to give up and go away.
Of course, suicide bombers are very limited: they just go at a target and blow themselves up. They do not patrol, they do not hold ground, they do not do what soldiers do-other than kill and die. As such, for groups like the Taliban to hold areas, they also need more conventional fighters. This can provide a clearer target for Western military forces.
Most of the members of groups like the Taliban are not suicide bombers (the leaders never are, of course). If they were, such groups would tend to die off in short order. Without leaders to guide them and people to provide their bombs, many of these suicide bombers would not be suicide bombers. As such, the main targets should be those who employ the bombers.
That is easily said. However, groups who employ suicide bombers also tend to either be insurgency groups or terrorist groups (or both). These groups generally cannot be dealt with using conventional military means. Dealing with them is usually much more like police work: finding them among civilians and dealing with them.