Weapons: An Inferior Product


May 10, 2010: Last month, foreign troops in Afghanistan encountered 1,059 IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device, a roadside, or suicide car bomb). This is twice what they encountered in April, 2009. Those 1,059 IEDs killed 18 foreign troops. This accounted for 53 percent of combat deaths last month and 60 percent of the attacks on foreign troops. So far this year, IEDs have killed 99 foreign troops and wounded another 785. Yet the percentage of casualties from IEDs is rapidly declining as more MRAP armored vehicles and countermeasures are moved in. Over 80 percent of the IEDs encountered last month were detected before they could harm foreign troops.

There are several differences between the IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include the quality of manufacture, the skill of emplacement and the explosives used. In Iraq, there were thousands of tons of munitions and explosives scattered around the country after the 2003 invasion was over. This was the legacy of Saddam Hussein, and the billions he spent on weapons during his three decades in power. The Iraqi terrorists grabbed a lot of these munitions, and used them for a five year bombing campaign.

With no such abundance of leftover munitions, the Taliban had to fall back on a common local explosive; ammonium nitrate. This is a powdered fertilizer that, when mixed with diesel or fuel oil, can be exploded with a detonator. While only about 40 percent the power of the same weight of TNT, these fertilizer bombs are effective as roadside bombs. But they are bulkier and a slurry. Moreover, the fuel oil must be mixed thoroughly and in exactly the right proportion, otherwise the explosive effect is much less than expected. But the biggest problem is that if you can't get the ammonium nitrate, you have no explosives. So, U.S. and NATO forces are now on the search for ammonium nitrate. The government has forbidden the use of ammonium nitrate. Smugglers are charging high rates to get the stuff in from Pakistan, because even foreign troops (who cannot be bribed) are stopping  and searching trucks. Other, non-explosive, fertilizers are now available to the farmers, at equivalent cost to ammonium nitrate. All this won't make it impossible for the terrorists to get the stuff, but it will be more difficult. This will result in fewer, or less powerful, bombs.

As the use of IEDs in Iraq moved to Afghanistan, so did all the techniques U.S. troops have already developed to deal with these devices. In Iraq, the U.S. mobilized a multi-billion dollar effort to deal with IEDs, and that paid off. New technology (jammers, robots), tactics (predictive analysis and such), equipment (better armor for vehicles and troops) and a lot of determination did the job. Gradually, IEDs became less dangerous. In 2006, it took about five IEDs to cause one coalition casualty (11 percent of them fatal) in Iraq. By 2008 it took nine IEDs per casualty (12 percent fatal). The important thing was avoiding, detecting or defeating IEDs. In 2006, only 8 percent of IEDs put out there caused casualties. In 2007, it was nine percent. In 2008, it was less than five percent. The main objective of IEDs was to kill coalition troops, and at that, they were very ineffective. In 2006, you had to use 48 to kill one soldier. In 2007, you needed 49 and by 2008, you needed 79. In Afghanistan, it currently takes 53 IEDs to kill one foreign soldiers.

While IEDs are even less effective in Afghanistan, because they are the main cause of NATO casualties, they get a lot of media attention. In Afghanistan, the enemy started off one big disadvantage, as they didn't have the expertise or the resources of the Iraqi IED specialists. In Iraq, the bombs were built and placed by one of several dozen independent gangs, each containing smaller groups of people with different skills. The Taliban IED gangs are much less skilled than those encountered in Iraq. At the same time, the equipment, techniques and troops who neutralized the IED campaign in Iraq has been moved to Afghanistan. This is a major reason because the effectiveness of Taliban IED attacks are declining so quickly.





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