July 26, 2007:
There's a war going on in Iraq that
you rarely hear about. It goes on at night, and has been very successful. While
U.S. infantry and tank units make raids all over central Iraq, the other war,
fought largely at night, by engineers and non-infantry troops (often
artillerymen) serving as infantry, to catch and stop teams of terrorists trying
to set up roadside bombs. The American troops are guided by an intelligence
effort that keeps track of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) by type and
location. Over 90 percent of IEDs do not do any damage to Americans, or anyone
else. Many of these are captured, or at least examined remotely by a robot,
before being destroyed. The intel people track changes in IED design, where the
are placed and by who, and keep the U.S. troops who hunt the bomb planting
teams. The intel crews also use computers and some fancy math to predict where
more bombs are likely to be set up. This is based on techniques that go all the
way back to World War II, but are much more useful now because of all the cheap
computing power available.
This counter-IED effort doesn't get much attention.
That's partly because it's a success, and success isn't as exciting as failure.
Moreover, most of this action takes place at night, which, despite the 10 PM to
5 AM curfew, is still the best time to try and plant IEDs. Third, because of
all the specialized equipment, technology and techniques used, the military
doesn't want to reveal a lot of what goes into making the counter-IED effort
work. That would enable the enemy to better avoid detection.
The terrorists know that the Americans have night
vision equipment, and UAVs and manned aircraft overhead. The terrorists take
for granted that the Americans can apparently see anyone on the ground, at any
time and in any weather. But planting IEDs is a big business in Iraq. Hundreds
are planted every week, and the teams doing it can make several hundred dollars
if they succeed, and even more if their bomb actually kills or injures
While snipers and missiles are often used to kill
the IED planting teams, it's preferable to take them alive. Some of these guys
will talk, and that will lead to more people in the terrorist organization.
There are plenty of other specialists who operate out of view, like the bomb
builders, and the scouts (who find where to place the bomb) and the trigger
teams who set them off. Most important of all are the paymasters, who provide
the cash, and often the bomb making materials. Getting to more of these folks
is the major reason for the recent decline in terrorist bombing activity.
The counter-terror teams don't mind working at
night. The night vision gear takes care of the darkness, and it's a lot cooler
once the sun goes down. Most Iraqis stay in at night, and the curfew keeps the
roads free of heavy traffic. So there are fewer civilians to worry about. And
each team gets a great deal of satisfaction each day their stretch of highway
is free of IED casualties. The IED threat is greatest when troops go into a new
area, and move around without benefit of IED patrols to keep the roads safe.
The most heavily used (by the troops) routes are regularly patrolled by the
night shift, and rarely suffer IED attacks.