Bigger bomb squad goes to Afghanistan

NY Times, Thom Shanker:

As part of its buildup in Afghanistan, the Pentagon plans to deploy billions of dollars in heavily armored vehicles, spy planes, jamming technology and even experimental ground-penetrating radar to defend troops from increasingly lethal roadside bombs.

More than 175 American and allied troops were killed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan last year, more than twice as many as the year before, and American commanders say the 17,000 extra troops ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama last week will offer additional targets.

While improvised roadside bombs have been a greater threat in Iraq, the Taliban-led insurgency has begun to use them on a wider scale in Afghanistan. Four American soldiers died Tuesday in an attack involving an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., in southern Afghanistan, where most of the new American troops are headed. On Wednesday, three British soldiers patrolling in southern Afghanistan were killed by an explosive device.

Senior military officers say Afghanistan’s topography and primitive infrastructure play to the insurgents’ advantage. Unlike Iraq, where more of the streets are paved, Afghanistan has a network of undeveloped roads where it is far easier to lay traps.

“Dirt roads give you plenty of softer places to dig in, then for the weather to settle it, and then for dust to camouflage it,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, director of the Pentagon’s organization in charge of seeking ways to counter improvised explosives.

Even Afghanistan’s most vital paved highway, the Ring Road, the primary route for commercial and military convoys between Kabul and other major cities, was built with thousands of culverts — any of which could conceal explosives.

The military plans to use satellites and portable Global Positioning System devices to show convoys the exact location of each culvert, and to install monitoring systems that can detect hidden bombs, General Metz said.

His unit, the Joint I.E.D. Defeat Organization, tallied 3,611 instances in which improvised explosives were used in Afghanistan in 2008, a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Besides coalition forces, even larger numbers of Afghan civilians were killed last year.

In Iraq, there were more than 9,000 I.E.D. attacks last year, but that is far below the number in 2006, when they peaked at 2,500 a month. Today, insurgents in Iraq are planting fewer I.E.D.’s, and only one in nine produces an American casualty. In Afghanistan, where as many as one in three bombs causes a casualty, American officers say they hope a combination of technology, intelligence, armor and training can help them drive down the casualty rate.

The improvised bombs — buried in roads, packed into cars or bicycles and hidden in trash cans or animal carcasses — are made from materials readily available in war zones, whether abandoned bombs, construction explosives or fertilizer. They are the weapon of choice for an insurgency: cheap and easy to build, but hard to detect and counter.

The Pentagon created the counter-I.E.D. organization in 2006, and its budget has ranged from $3.5 billion to $4.4 billion annually, but that does not include costs for armored vehicles and other systems. In part because new jamming technology has foiled some weapons triggered remotely by cellphones or garage-door openers, insurgents in Afghanistan are turning to more primitive methods, using wire or even rope as the trigger.

Other countermeasures being prepared include a ground-penetrating radar that only recently completed testing, as well as more jammers, wheeled robots, hardened troop transport vehicles and a laser that can detonate an I.E.D. from a safe distance. Armored vehicles will be deployed with heavy rollers extended in front to detonate bombs triggered by pressure plates.

Shanker puts the problem in perspective with his comparison to Iraq which two years ago was getting almost as many IEDs a month as Afghanistan has had in its biggest year. I think the number of IEDs is a metric of little value. all it really shows you is enemy effort and not effectiveness. Most of these guys pushing the IED warfare in Afghansitan are the same guys we defeated in Iraq, so there should not be a need for despair at the increased tempo of operations in Afghanistan. This is where most of al Qaeda's survivors retreated to. Had we not fought and defeated them in Iraq they would have been in Afghanistan in greater numbers sooner.

In Iraq there were several elements to defeating the IED attacks. Snipers set up in areas where the enemy like to plant explosives. The UAVs patroled the roads during the period when the enemy liked to dig. The increased tempo actually worked against the enemy, because it made it more likely a group could be spoted, captured or killed. That kind of attrition has a wearing effect on an insurgency.

The Taliban have not been particularly smart fighters. In the early years they tended to stand and fight and get wiped out by US airpower. Sometimes the casualty ratios from a Taliban ambush were 100 to 1 in our favor. Lately they have wised up and breaking contact and trying to get away. Their most effective weapon has been propaganda suggesting that the air strikes that are killing their operations are killing civilians. They are doing this by using human shields and camouflaging themselves as civilians. The military and the media have done a poor joj of explaing that both of these activties are war crimes. This has led to several stories about the US killing civilians. These are hard to verify because the Taliban camouflage themselves as civilians and do not wear ID.


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