Ex-JIEDDO [Editor: Joint IED Defeat Organization] chief General Montgomery Meigs, now a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, boasts that the U.S. military succeeded in reducing the casualty-to-blast ratio of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure. In 2002, he says, each bomb explosion caused, on average, six casualties (wounded and killed). By the end of 2007, when he left the position, that figure was down to one.
And yet troops continue to die from bomb attacks in Afghanistan at a fearsome rate. Though the Taliban and their allies were comparatively slow to discover the advantages of using IEDs, over the past two years they've turned roadside bombs into their primary weapon. Countering that threat in Afghanistan is proving even more of a challenge than it was in Iraq. Dakota Wood and Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington points out the makeshift bombs being used against U.S. troops in Afghanistan pose a whole new set of challenges. Iraq, they note, is a "relatively modernized 20th-century country" with paved roads, a fact that often makes it easier to figure out where bombs might be planted. Iraqi bomb-makers made ample use of explosives looted from countless Saddam-era munitions dumps scattered around the country -- which tended to translate into myriad but comparatively small-scale attacks. (A Congressional Research Service report on the IED problem a few years ago noted that 40 percent of Saddam-era munitions still weren't being properly guarded a full year after the invasion.) By contrast, Afghanistan has almost no modern infrastructure; the relatively small number of troops there isn't enough to cover its much larger territory. And paved roads are virtually nonexistent, making it easier for Afghan insurgents to hide their explosive packages.
In Iraq, the insurgents proved adept at crafting found munitions -- everything from hand grenades to 155-mm howitzer shells -- into explosive booby traps. In Afghanistan, the preferred IED has been the fertilizer bomb. Even thought the number of "IED incidents" has been lower in Afghanistan, the Taliban have kept casualties high by making their bombs much bigger. The U.S. and NATO forces have responded with everything from high-tech electronic countermeasures (to block command signals) to intense drone surveillance of spots where IED activity tends to be highest. In some parts of the country American troops have even taken to seizing or buying up fertilizer from farmers -- the same farmers who, presumably, have been lectured on the need to replace low-maintenance opium poppies with proper, fertilizer-intensive crops.
The biggest problem for IED-fighters, though, is simply that the target is constantly on the move. The bomb-makers have proven remarkably deft at upping the explosive ante. "There's one thing the more candid generals will tell you," says John Bennett, a reporter with U.S. defense weekly Defense News. "I think they've been caught off guard a bit by how smart the enemy is, how inventive they are."
"The enemy isn't very helpful," admits Meigs. "He keeps adapting every six months." The first Iraqi IEDs were primitive affairs that didn't always explode like they were supposed to. But by October 2003 the insurgents had gained enough know-how to blow up an M1A2 Abrams tank, killing two of its crewmen. U.S. military planners are clearly worried that worse may be in store for their troops in Afghanistan as the Taliban hone their engineering skills.
That speed of adaptation makes it even harder for cumbersome bureaucracies to cope. The GAO report listed a bewildering mélange of competing or overlapping agencies assigned to deal with the IED threat. That proliferation is, in part, the somewhat understandable consequence of the way U.S. military planners reacted to the IED problem. As the casualty figures rose, both defense bureaucrats and congressional policymakers began urging immediate attention to the problem -- and providing corresponding amounts of money to get it fixed.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Foreign Policy Magazine: America's IED Nightmare
Christian Caryl of Foreign Policy Magazine writes about how Improvised Explosive Devices are cause casualties and economic costs far out of proportion to the effort expended to produce them. For me, this serves to emphasize why a military solution cannot possibly be the ultimate solution in Afghanistan - we will simply be unable to pay for the consequences. The author also emphasizes that if anything, US forces will be more vulnerable to IEDs in Afghanistan due to the rougher terrain. An excerpt: