For those who thought the insurgents in Iraq defeated and the war over, well, not so fast, according to the head of the U.S. counter IED effort, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz. While bomb attacks in Iraq have steadily declined from a monthly peak of 2,800 in early 2007, insurgents still plant around 400 improvised bombs every month, comparable to early 2004 levels. The vast majority of those are found before they detonate or they do and don’t harm anybody.
IEDs are the insurgent weapon of choice both in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, and enemy fighters emplace around 900 bombs every month. The Taliban are planting more IEDs as they have caught on to the fact, as insurgents in Iraq did, that it’s far easier to attack from a distance than go head-to-head with American armor and firepower where chances of survival are pretty low.
IEDs are the enemy’s indirect fire, a low-tech way to place ordinance precisely on target, usually directly beneath the thinly armored floor of American vehicles. One troubling statistic: there are 400 IED incidents every month in places other than Iraq and Afghanistan.
Metz runs the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, funded to the tune of $4 billion a year to train troops to spot IEDs, conduct forensic analysis of homemade bombs and field thousands of radio frequency jammers. JIEDDO has come under almost constant fire since its creation in 2004 for failing to come up with a solution to IEDs. As former director Montgomery Meigs said, that’s like criticizing somebody for failing to develop a solution for bullets. Defeating IEDs is a tough “physics” problem, Metz said.
When the U.S. began placing radio frequency jammers on its vehicles in Iraq to interrupt triggering signals, the insurgents opted for a low-tech response and started hard wiring the triggers to the bombs. Spotting a thin electrical wire on a cluttered city street is nearly impossible, Metz said.
Investigators from the House Armed Services Committee looked at metrics JIEDDO uses to demonstrate success and found: “It is impossible to demonstrate which of the specific initiatives and programs supported by JIEDDO are effective and to what degree.” Metz’s response is that American fatalities and injuries due to IED attacks have dropped dramatically from the height of the insurgent bombing campaign. Despite placing over 400 bombs across Iraq in October, only two Americans were killed from IED attacks that month.
Metz says the drop in casualties is due to an aggressive human intelligence campaign targeting insurgent bomb makers and networks. Fielding the MRAP vehicles has also reduced casualties as the heavy armored vehicle is able to absorb blast damage better than the lighter Humvees that were often thrown about by under-belly blasts. Another explanation is that American troops with repeated tours in Iraq have become much better at spotting the devices. As a former Israeli special ops soldier told me, the Israeli Army runs into IEDs all the time in the occupied Palestinian territories, they’ve just become very experienced over the years at spotting the devices. As Metz said, the best sensor to spot IEDs is the human eyeball.
He said the bomb networks in Afghanistan are very similar in structure to those in Iraq with quite a bit of sharing of know-how between fighters who challenge American troops. Afghanistan doesn’t have the robust cell phone network found Iraq, so triggering the bombs and communications between insurgents is different. But Taliban insurgents have the huge advantage of a safe haven just across the border in Pakistan, something Iraqi insurgents never had. Troops there must also contend with a limited and mostly unpaved road network and mountainous terrain that hinders line of sight.
A few months back, military and Bush administration officials were talking non-stop about Iranian agents supplying insurgents in Iraq with the deadly explosively formed penetrator type bombs. Now, apparently they’ve stopped. Metz says they see maybe 12 to 20 EFPs a month now in Iraq versus 60 to 80 from last year. At one point, EFPs accounted for only 5 percent of total IEDs in Iraq but caused 35 percent of all American casualties. “We must assume that somebody has made the decision on the Shia side with connections to Iran to bring [EFP attacks] down,” Metz said, although he acknowledged they have no evidence to support Iranian strategic direction.
Another possible explanation is that the Iranians were never supplying EFPs in the numbers originally claimed by the military. Most EFPs now found in Iraq are local builds, Metz said. If the EFP networks were a local phenomenon, with the dramatic drop in insurgent attacks across the board in Iraq one would also expect EFP attacks to drop. Two intelligence and bomb disposal teams are operating in Iraq, under an initiative called “Fox,” dedicated specifically to tracking down EFP bomb cells, Metz said.
Metz said funding for JIEDD is being transitioned from the emergency supplementals to the base budget.