I was on a conference call last week with JIEDDO commander Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, who discussed IED networks in Afghanistan, where IED attacks have doubled over the past year. While Oates was careful not to reveal much in the way of breaking news, he provided some interesting detail on the bomb networks in Afghanistan.
Bomb networks in Afghanistan differ somewhat from those in Iraq. Iraqi IED cells were largely funded by Saddam Hussein loyalists and sympathetic Sunnis in the Arab Gulf states. Bomb emplacers were the disenfranchised and the unemployed and most bombs were randomly placed. As an intelligence officer in Baghdad once told me, an emplacer would simply walk out his front door and drop a bomb onto the highway.
In Afghanistan, the networks have “almost a military-style organizational structure,” with top level direction of IED placement. Bomb emplacers follow directives from the “chain of command,” and the emplacers are usually trained fighters. “There's a direction for where they should be emplaced, and the order is given and they're emplaced,” he said.
I asked Oates about the Haqqani network, the military’s most lethal foe in Afghanistan; Bill Roggio of the long War Journal labels the Haqqani network “al Qaeda’s Afghan branch.” Oates said the Haqqani network was the “senior” Taliban faction operating in Afghanistan and it's signature bomb is the “potassium chlorate-based homemade explosive.”
This cruder, more “homemade,” aspect is the big difference between IEDs in Afghanistan and those encountered in Iraq. Iraqi IEDs typically used military grade explosives and insurgents there widely used the explosively formed penetrator (EFP) shaped charge device. Afghan IEDs are much cruder devices, using commercially available fertilizer, potassium chlorate and ammonium nitrate, as accelerants. Triggering is typically rudimentary, mostly pressure plate or trip wires, with a few remotely detonated.
While Taliban IEDs are less sophisticated, because most roads are dirt, the insurgents are able to deep bury very large bombs that can destroy the most heavily armored vehicles with huge underbelly blasts. The lack of metallic components in those IEDs also makes them more difficult to detect. The military has been outfitting more vehicles with the simple, yet effective, mine roller.
One solution JIEDDO is trying out, is to set up telescoping poles with cameras on top to establish “persistent surveillance” on the more heavily trafficked dirty roads. The major obstacle to that effort is transportation, Oates said, getting the gear into Afghanistan and maintaining it. He said cameras mounted on blimps will also be used, as they were in Baghdad.
Oates is trying to beef up forensics inspection of the bombs themselves so as to track them back to specific bomb makers, an approach that proved effective in Iraq.