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Mar 31, 2010 | 12:15 GMT

5 mins read

Afghanistan: Another Round in the IED Game

The challenge of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been mounting for years in Afghanistan, but with the recent surge of Western troops into the country, and with the scope and tempo of operations on the rise, the balancing act between bombmaking improvisation and IED countermeasures will likely accelerate. Afghan IEDs have been somewhat different than those perfected in Iraq, and as the situation intensifies in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen which side will retain the edge. So far, IEDs have not significantly impeded U.S./NATO operations.
Though it has long been associated most with the war in Iraq, the improvised explosive device (IED) has become the No. 1 killer of Western troops now driving the roads and plodding through the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Since 2004, IED fatalities for coalition military forces there have roughly doubled every year, with 2010 fatalities already having reached the 2007 total. Thus far, the Afghan IED has been fairly distinct from the Iraqi variety. Neither country has any shortage of loose military hardware, but conventional military ordnance like large artillery shells has long been more prevalent in Iraq, due to the country's history of having a large standing army organized and equipped broadly along Soviet lines. The Iraqi military also stockpiled weapons in hidden caches ahead of the U.S. invasion, specifically for a protracted guerrilla campaign. The Iraqi IED also came to be characterized by a particularly deadly variety known as an explosively formed projectile (EFP), which was supplied by Iran. The EFP is constructed with concave copper disks, and the explosion shapes the copper into a molten penetrator that can punch through heavy armor. Concave copper disks captured in an arms cache in Iraq In Afghanistan, however, the heart of most IEDs is fertilizer, generally ammonium nitrate or potassium chloride, both of which have been readily available in the agrarian country. The former is far more powerful and has consequently been banned. Military-grade high explosives also detonate with a much higher velocity than devices based on fertilizer. And while IEDs in Iraq often used sophisticated command-detonation devices (which made U.S. jamming technology crucial as a countermeasure), IEDs in Afghanistan often use crude triggers such as pressure plates. Compared to Iraqi IEDs, Afghan devices also frequently have less metal, which makes them more difficult to find with traditional hand-held mine detectors. Indeed, modern versions of the old-fashioned mine roller, shown here mounted in front of a mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle built around a V-shaped hull designed to better withstand IEDs, are increasingly in demand in Afghanistan. K-9 units with explosive-detecting dogs also are reportedly being deployed more widely at the battalion level. An MRAP vehicle equipped with a mine roller But the real issue is this back-and-forth game of tactics and countertactics that characterizes the IED battle. STRATFOR has long argued that the bombmaking techniques honed over the years in Iraq will proliferate more widely — Afghanistan being only one destination. And while many a bombmaker was killed or captured in Iraq during the high-intensity special operations forces raids that took place behind the scenes during the 2007 surge, others have begun to gravitate to places like Afghanistan, where their presence has contributed to the uptick in IED use. The tools at their disposal may be different to some extent, but the core expertise is what matters. With the right level of experience and skill, bombmakers can improvise and innovate, which speeds up the turnaround of new, deadlier designs. In addition, Iran has reportedly been training Taliban fighters in IED fabrication and is turning its attention toward Afghanistan. Whether EFPs begin to turn up there in a big way remains to be seen, but they are not particularly complex devices when the right raw materials are available. The bottom line is that the regional focus — not only of Iran but also of countries like Russia and India — is increasingly shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan, which may lead to more interference in the U.S./NATO effort from beyond Afghanistan's borders. At the same time, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is working hard to counter the growing IED threat. Years of battling IEDs in Iraq have helped the U.S. hone its ability to quickly evaluate emerging IED trends and provide effective countermeasures. In Afghanistan, the ban on ammonium nitrate can hardly be effectively enforced, but it is certainly putting a pinch on an essential bombmaking material. And although the Taliban have begun to hit back in Helmand province, they are also feeling the loss of a key logistical hub in Marjah, where there are reports that bombmaking material has become increasingly scarce. There are also reports that more than half of the IEDs in Marjah are being found before they explode — staying "left of boom" in grunt parlance — due to evolving American tactics and techniques. And the deployment of MRAP all-terrain vehicles — more mobile and suitable for Afghanistan's rugged terrain than the cumbersome MRAPs introduced in Iraq — means that more troops will have a safer means of transport, though dismounted foot patrols will continue to be of central importance. An Oshkosh MRAP all-terrain vehicle Still, because it has proved so effective, the deployment of IEDs will remain a key Taliban tactic, and they will continue to evolve their methods in response to U.S. countermeasures. With IEDs, this back-and-forth tactical evolution can come in particularly rapid cycles, with bombmakers rapidly learning from their successes and failures while American forensic teams try to identify and dissect the latest threat and devise an effective response. With more and more U.S. and allied troops surging into the country, just how this balance plays out and which side retains the edge will warrant close scrutiny. And the fact remains that, as in Iraq, the use of IEDS may be the deadliest insurgent tactic in Afghanistan, but it has yet to significantly impede ISAF operations.

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