Weapons: The Head Shot


July 22, 2009: As in Iraq, the roadside bomb is becoming major industry in some areas of Afghanistan. In 2007, about a thousand of these bombs were built and placed in Afghanistan (mainly in the south). That doubled to 2,000 in 2008. That number is more than doubling this year. The building, placing and detonating of these bombs is subcontracted to dozens of teams that specialize in those tasks. The chief proponent of the roadside bomb are the Taliban and al Qaeda groups. These guys are still well financed, and that's what has made the roadside bomb possible in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.

Roadside bombs were defeated in Iraq by going after the teams that financed, built and planned where the devices would be placed. Equipping the troops with vehicles more resistant to bomb damage, and constantly scouting the roads for emplaced bombs, or several men placing one, helped limit the damage. Four years ago, for each IED used in Iraq, one American was killed. By 2007, it took six IEDs to kill one U.S. soldier or marine. The same pattern emerged in Afghanistan. The countermeasures to these weapons have been formidable, and this has forced the terrorists to place more and more bombs, at greater expense, and to employ them more effectively.

Finding and disabling bombs does not stop the bombs from being made and placed. To do that you had to find out who, and where, the bombs were made, and destroy the technicians who put the explosive devices together. Other skilled members of the team were also high-value targets, especially the people who handle the money. This is more of a detective's job. In Iraq, several successful techniques were developed to destroy the bomb teams. One was using aircraft with ground scanning radar (especially the JSTARS) to find out where teams that planted a bomb return to. Otherwise, you drop a bomb or missile on the placement team, and eliminate them and the bomb. Electronic eavesdropping also picks up useful information, as does cultivating informants in the towns and villages. The problem with informants is that the bomb builders stay away from areas where there are a lot of anti-Taliban feelings (most of Afghanistan, but not in the south where the heroin trade is concentrated, especially Helmand province.)

The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan use these bombs because IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) have been the most successful terrorist weapons for injuring American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, about half of American and NATO casualties are caused by these weapons. Getting these bombs made and placed has become a major enterprise for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The main problem with this is that you cannot win a war with IEDs. Over the last three years, the Taliban have tried to avoid other forms of attack (assault rifles, RPGs, rockets), and concentrated on the IEDs. There's a very good reason for this, building and placing an IED is much less likely to get you killed, than having a shootout with American troops. The terrorists will still attack with rifles and RPGs, and still get killed in large numbers when they do so, but the word is out that this approach is basically suicidal. So a great deal of effort, and resources, has gone into building more, and better, IEDs. Thus the increase in the number of IEDs used. The only downside to this is that an increasing number of IEDs don't hurt foreign troops. Most fail to hurt anyone. Instead, they are discovered and destroyed, or dismantled by an American and NATO forensics team, in order to help in the search for the groups that specialize in building IEDs.

That raises another important issue; IEDs are big business. Most of the Afghans making and placing these bombs are not doing it for free. They get paid, and the bomb building industry generates over a million dollars a year in revenues for those involved in the IED business. For an impoverished Afghan, this is one of the few good employment opportunities available. Moreover, the experience in Iraq led to the creation of many snazzy instructional DVDs and videos for wannabe bomb makers. Excellent graphics, and, unfortunately for Afghans, everything is in Arabic. Some of these have been translated into Afghan languages, but that ran into the problem of illiteracy (which is much higher in Afghanistan, especially among the pro-Taliban tribes.) This has created a new target for Afghan police and foreign troops; the few Afghans who have acquired the skills needed to build the bombs. It's been discovered that every time you kill or capture one of these guys, there is less IED activity in the area, or the bombs are of lower quality, and more prone to failure, or going off while being assembled or placed.

The organizations that provide the money for bomb building, and help with obtaining materials (there's a black market for everything in Afghanistan, everything), are also evolving. They have to, as the managers of the IED campaign have become prime suspects, and much sought after by U.S. troops and Afghan police. But you don't hear much about this in the media, for the simple reason that American intelligence does not want to let on how much it knows and how close it is getting to the IED kingpins. That's very much a war in the shadows, and one that extends into neighboring countries. A number of the IED gangs have been destroyed, or severely damaged. But while attempts are made to decapitate the IED campaign, work continues at the grassroots level to detect, disable and destroy those that are placed.

Actually, the biggest victims of IEDs are Afghans, especially civilians. The terrorists must go to great lengths to place IEDs in populated areas, where all the structures and clutter along the roads leaves more hiding places. But the local Afghans are not keen on having a large bomb go off in their neighborhood. The Taliban often don't give the locals much choice. After all, the Taliban knows how to terrorize, and they usually start with uncooperative Iraqis living around them. IEDs placed in rural areas are much easier to spot by the Americans, and all their UAVs, electronic gadgets and sharp eyed soldiers. The one big advantage the Taliban have is the shortage of roads, especially paved ones, throughout the country. It's much easier to plant an IED in a dirt road.

The key technologies for finding and destroying the bomb making teams are more intelligence aircraft (manned and UAVs), as well as more intelligence troops to carry out the detective aspect of all this. That's why so may intel units have been moved to Afghanistan in the last year. Personnel with experience in taking down Iraqi bomb builders are particularly valuable in Afghanistan.

The U.S. spends billions of dollars a year to develop new technologies for thwarting roadside bombs. This is revolutionizing warfare, because the electronic devices, sensors and reconnaissance systems developed have many other uses in combat. So while the Taliban IEDs are useless as a war-winning weapon, the countermeasures are very valuable, and the impact of this new tech will be highly visible in any future wars.




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