By Yochi J. Dreazen
The number of IED attacks in Afghanistan has spiked to all-time high, U.S. military officials said, because of the free flow of critical bomb-making materials from neighboring Pakistan.
Senior military officials said there were more than 1,600 strikes involving so-called “improvised explosive devices” in June, setting a new record for the long Afghan war, and underscoring the dangers posed by militants operating inside both of the troubled countries. The number of IED strikes in June 2011 is nearly 25 percent higher than the monthly average for the conflict. In May, for instance, there were 1,250 IED attacks.
IEDs, crude bombs fashioned out of homemade explosives and simple triggering devices, are the primary cause of coalition fatalities in Afghanistan. So far this year, they have accounted for at least 158 of the U.S.-led coalition’s 283 battlefield fatalities in Afghanistan. And they are exacting a steadily climbing human toll: the bombs caused 1,248 coalition casualties between April and June, a 15 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
U.S. Marines detonate an "improvised explosive device" in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province in April 2011. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)
Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the head of the military’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, said in an interview that the growing IED threat in Afghanistan is a direct result of Pakistan’s failure to prevent large quantities of fertilizer – the main ingredient of the bombs – from being smuggled into Afghanistan.
“We’re never going to be successful in focusing on the battlefield in Afghanistan and focusing on the IED networks in Afghanistan,” he said in the interview. “We’ve got to engage and do something about the source.”
In an interview with National Journal, Barbero said that 84 percent of the bombs in Afghanistan use calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer produced at a pair of large factories inside Pakistan. He said U.S. officials had visited the facilities recently as part of a broad push to persuade Islamabad to “put some controls on the flow of this stuff,” but he noted that militants in Pakistan continue to send bomb components to their compatriots over the border in Afghanistan.
“The overwhelming majority of it comes from Pakistan … and somehow makes its way into Afghanistan,” Barbero said.
The high-level U.S. belief that Pakistan is failing to take strong enough measures to limit the influx of fertilizer and other bomb-making components is the latest source of tension between Washington and Islamabad. Relations between the two nominal allies took a serious hit when U.S. forces mounted a unilateral raid that killed al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. Furious Pakistan officials responded by kicking out hundreds of American military trainers, leading the White House to hold up more than $800 million in U.S. aid to Pakistan.
The fertilizer issue poses a particularly complex set of challenges for American and Pakistani policymakers. It is legal to produce fertilizer in Pakistan, an agrarian nation whose farmers are heavily reliant on the crop stimulant. As a result, U.S. military officials acknowledge that any American effort to block the production or export of the fertilizer would spark fierce public fury within Pakistan. More practically, U.S. officials say there is virtually no chance that Islamabad would agree to such curbs.
The U.S. also has a paucity of useful intelligence about the militant networks inside Pakistan that purchase the fertilizer and then smuggle it into Afghanistan. In a late-June speech, Barbero said the nation’s intelligence community needed to place more emphasis on the IED “supply chain” leading from Pakistan to its volatile neighbor.
“The intelligence community should make understanding the Pakistan [homemade-explosives] network a top priority,” Barbero told a gathering of American intelligence officials. “Right now, it is not.”
Specifically, the general told his audience that the U.S. needed to do more to identify the “key facilitators” who supply the IED pipeline into Afghanistan; the “funding streams” used to purchase the bomb components and pay for their shipment; and the “key financiers” who raise the money that makes the whole system operate.
IEDs have long been the primary killer of U.S. troops in Iraq, where the bombs are responsible for more than 2,700 American battlefield deaths. But the bombs are particularly dangerous in Afghanistan, a mountainous country where U.S. personnel conduct a significant percentage of their combat patrols on foot rather than inside an armored vehicle. The number of IED attacks against dismounted troops increased by more than 59 percent in April-June of 2011 when compared to the same period a year earlier. Militants are also building bigger bombs, making the IEDs even more dangerous for troops conducting foot patrols.
IEDs are no less deadly for Afghan civilians. A United Nations report last month found that 1,462 Afghan civilians had been killed from January to June, nearly one-third by insurgent IEDs. The U.N. found that civilian deaths from IEDs were up 17 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, making the bombs the “single largest killer of Afghan civilians in the first half of 2011.”
In the interview with National Journal, Barbero said his command was trying to better protect U.S. forces from IEDs by rushing new portable bomb-detectors and jamming equipment to the war zone. So far this year, his command has spent more $351 million to send more than 5,000 individual pieces of equipment and more than 600 bomb-sniffing dogs to Afghanistan.
On the ground in Afghanistan, Barbero and other senior commanders believe the U.S. is making halting progress in the counter-IED fight. American forces have worked to build detailed databases of bomb-making networks throughout the country, and Barbero said coalition forces are finding more insurgent weapons caches - and safely dismantling more roadside bombs - than ever before.
In response to requests from the field, meanwhile, Barbero’s team has also identified six types of privately made bomb-detecting robots that can be safely used on Afghanistan’s rugged terrains. The government is currently testing the lightweight machines – which have names like the Dragon Runner, the Armadillo and the Sand Flea – with an eye towards dispatching them to Afghanistan in October.
Still, the commander acknowledges that every U.S. move to better shield its forces from IEDs sparks an insurgent countermove to pierce the new defenses. In recent months, Barbero said Afghanistan’s militants have begun surrounding villages with “belts” of IEDs to make it more dangerous for NATO or Afghan personnel to enter the towns and mounting small-arms ambushes designed to draw coalition forces towards hidden bombs.
“This is an arms race, but the changes come every few months or every few weeks, not every few years,” Barbero said. “The enemy is smart and savvy, and they watch us and adjust to us, so we need to be equally agile.”