The United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan are waging an intense struggle against the insurgents’ weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device (IED). The anti-IED fight is a complex affair that involves measures to protect vehicles and dismounted warriors, the detection and neutralization of the devices, finding and attacking the networks that support and direct the individual IED user, and intensive training for our forces in tactics and techniques to defeat this weapon. Further complicating the effort is the reality that the IED threat in Afghanistan is different than that in Iraq.
For example, IED’s in Afghanistan are relatively simple devices made from ammonium-nitrate fertilizer with few metal parts and simple triggers. As a result, the measures required for the fight in one country tend to be different from those employed in the other. Even differences in geography play a role. For example, the military deployed thousands of relatively large and heavy, purpose built, mine resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles in Iraq. But the size and weight of those vehicles made them inappropriate for the difficult and complex terrain in much of Afghanistan necessitating the creation of a new, lighter protected transport, the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (MATV).
Leading the counter-IED effort is the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). Over the years JIEDDO has spent a lot of money on a wide range of often experimental technologies and methods for defeating IEDs. The JIEDDO charter which requires that candidate capabilities be rapidly deployable has led the organization down a number of dead end alleys. Overall, JIEDDO has been able to deploy an array of systems that have dramatically reduced both the number of IED attacks and the level of damage from successful detonations. U.S. convoys are equipped with an array of vehicle-mounted bomb-detection, jamming and detonation systems; similar man-portable devices are available for dismounted patrols.
JIEDDO is also expanding the use of the best IED detector ever created, bomb-sniffing dogs. Overhead are both manned and unmanned systems equipped with special sensors that can find IEDS and even watch as Taliban operatives attempt to deploy their bombs. Some 300 Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment (RAID) towers and over 60 tethered aerostats or blimps have been deployed as part of the Persistent Surveillance and Dissemination Systems (PSDS2). These systems use special video cameras and other sensors to unveil the surrounding area and detect ambushes or attempts to deploy IEDs.
The real key to truly defeating the IED threat in Afghanistan rests not with measures to protect our soldiers or neutralize the device but ultimately on the effort to dismantle the network. This network consists of suppliers of bomb-making materials, financiers, bomb-designers, Taliban commanders, and local bomb-emplacement teams. This involves, in part, exquisite intelligence to identify and take out Taliban commanders and senior leaders that enable the IED networks. But it also involves interdicting the flow of materials and money coming across the border from Pakistan. In this respect, the battle against the IED network resembles this nation’s war on drugs. Rather than busting drug dealers on the street corners of American cities, winning the war on drugs must successfully interdict the movement of drugs into the country as well as the sources of supply. Fortunately, unlike fighting the drug trade, demand plays less of a role in the overall dynamics of the IED network. Thus, interdicting supply can have a decisive effect on the battle against IEDs.
Neutralizing the flow of bomb-making materials entering Afghanistan from Pakistan requires a broader effort than that which can be mounted by JIEDDO alone. It requires a whole of government approach, probably with the State Department in the lead. Vast amounts of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer are produced and packaged in factories in Pakistan and shipped into Afghanistan. There are a host of steps that could be taken to reduce the manufacture and distribution of this key bomb-making material. The production of this material could be regulated and its distribution controlled. Chemical taggants could be placed into the ammonium nitrate, a step the U.S. took after the Oklahoma City bombing. Border controls could be tightened and inspections directed at interdicting movements of ammonium nitrate across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has rightly recognized the need to light a fire under the Obama Administration on this issue. He sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting that the U.S. government pressure the Government of Pakistan to take steps to interdict the flow of bomb-making fertilizer from that country into Afghanistan. The letter calls on Washington to pressure Islamabad to take the steps identified above. Although Pakistan has promised to do more to attack the IED networks in this area, like so many others, its actions belie its promises. Perhaps continuing U.S. aid to Pakistan should be made conditional on their doing more to control the flow of ammonium nitrate to the Taliban. Kudos to Senator Casey for caring so much about the safety of soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan as well as the innocent Afghan and Pakistani civilians who have been victims of IEDs.
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