Weapons: The Business Of Bombs In Afghanistan

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January 5, 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. That doubled to 2,000 in 2008. 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, or 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 But there have been some disturbing trends in the IED department. 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.

The main problem with this is that you cannot win a war with IEDs. In Vietnam, IEDs were used, but as a minor, secondary weapon. The Vietnamese communists knew they had to drive the Americans out before they could take over. When that effort failed, North Vietnam made peace, and once the American troops left, the communists launched two conventional invasions across the border. The first one, in 1972, failed, but the second one, in 1975, succeeded. The Taliban have no such invasion option. They have to drive the U.S. troops out and then, still outnumbered, take over the government. Many Taliban believe they can do it, with the help of a media campaign that convinces the world that the elected government of Afghanistan, and their foreign allies, are the bad guys. This is all absurd, but the Taliban are spending over $100,000 each month to build and place IEDs, just to inflict casualties on foreign troops, in an attempt to achieve their impossible dream.

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 in Iraq. 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 Iraqi individuals and contractors. 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 management of the IED campaign have been considered prime suspects, and much sought after by U.S. troops and Iraqi 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 U.S. is spending over four billion 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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