When Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced creation of yet another counter-IED Pentagon task force, he was clearly frustrated with the inability of the military, the intelligence agencies and industry to come up with answers to the simple yet devastatingly effective roadside bomb as the IED war shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The number of IED “incidents” in Afghanistan, defined as IEDs either found before detonating or actual IED attacks, have jumped from around 100 a month during 2006 to over 800 a month this past summer; in August IED incidents topped 1,000. In 2006, 41 U.S. and NATO troops were killed by IEDs. So far this year, 260 coalition troops have been killed by IEDs, according to the web site icasualties.com that tracks troop casualties. IED casualties in Afghanistan don’t approach those of Iraq during the height of the fighting there when some days saw 100 IED incidents, but the trend lines are headed in the wrong direction. As more troops arrive, casualties are sure to increase.
Gates said one of the IED group’s first tasks was to scour records from the Soviet-Afghan war during the 1980s for potential lessons on the Mujaheddin's use and the Soviet response to IEDs and mines. That war was marked by extreme brutality on the part of all combatants and both sides used land mines liberally. The Soviets ringed their strongpoints with thick mine belts that de-mining teams continue to clear to this day.
The Mujaheddin used mines and IEDs principally as an offensive weapon to bleed the Soviet occupiers, rather than to seize and defend territory. And bleed them they did: the Soviets lost 1,995 soldiers killed and 1,191 vehicles to mines and IEDs during their eight year long war. That’s just killed, certainly there were many thousands more wounded, as IEDs tend to maim more than they kill (the Soviets never produced a true accounting of their losses in Afghanistan, thought to be much higher than publicly available numbers). Those statistics come from the Army War College’s Lester Grau whose translations of Soviet general staff studies of the Afghan war, as well as Mujaheddin accounts of the fighting, are invaluable.
Like the U.S. military, the Soviet army in Afghanistan was road bound, relying on the country’s few roads to resupply scattered combat outposts. Much of the fighting was for control over these lines of communication. The roads linking the major Afghan towns such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Khost and Jalalabad were the scene of countless bloody battles.
Also, like the U.S. military before the Iraq war, the Soviet army in Afghanistan was organized and trained for linear battles against NATO in Western Europe and was caught wholly unprepared for a war where the traditional separation between hot front lines and secure rear areas did not apply. Unprotected supply convoys presented easy targets for Mujaheddin fighters until the Soviets began to provide heavily armed and armored escort; even then they continued to suffer losses.
Access to Pakistan’s burgeoning arms market provided the Mujaheddin large quantities of Italian, British, U.S., Soviet and Chinese built anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. A wide variety of homemade mines were added to the Mujaheddin arsenal made principally from unexploded ordinance as the Soviets rained bombs and artillery indiscriminately on Afghan territory, a percentage of which failed to explode.
Grau’s translation of the Russian General Staff study of the war shows the Mujaheddin became extremely skilled in the use of mines and IEDs. As with the Iraqi insurgency, specialized mine and IED cells emerged among the Mujaheddin as artisans perfected their craft. He quotes a Mujaheddin commander who said they preferred very “powerful mines,” they would typically pull the explosives from a number of mines and place them in simple containers such as a cooking oil tin and then detonate the bombs remotely via command wire.
Bombs were placed at important crossroads, narrow mountain roads, bridges, road bends, in water drains, culverts, river fords, road exits from canyons and possible helicopter landing zones. The general staff study quotes an instruction sheet provided to Afghan bound Soviet soldiers: “Q: When and where it best to hit a convoy? A: At the most opportune site – at the entrance or exit to a tunnel, at a bridge, at a tight turn, or an up-grade or a down-grade, at a constricted road.”
On dirt roads, anti-tank mines were laid in vehicle tracks and along the shoulders. They strung mines and IEDs together with detonation cord - what U.S, troops call IED “daisy chains” - they stacked multiple mines in the same hole, surrounded anti-tank mines with anti-personnel mines and combined pressure plate mines with command wire detonation. Most IEDs were booby trapped to prevent easy clearance. One Mujaheddin commander described the method of stretching two metal wires across a paved road hooked to an electric battery and an explosive charge beneath the pavement; rubber tires wouldn’t set off the bomb but metal tracks of tanks and personnel carriers would close the circuit.
The Mujaheddin were masters of the “complex attack,” using mines and IEDs to initiate an ambush on Soviet convoys and patrols. Their favored tactic was to attack the head and tail of a convoy and then work over the vehicles trapped in between. They laid extensive anti-personnel minefields in complex terrain, such as the “green zones,” heavily farmed areas with thick vegetation, in the south around Kandahar and Helmand, where the Soviets often operated on foot. Numerous field reports recount the heavy casualties suffered by Soviet infantry trapped in extensive minefields swept by machinegun and rifle fire.
Route clearance was a high priority and the Soviets sent specialized combat engineer units to Afghanistan equipped with mine sniffing dogs (that often proved effective), electronic mine detectors (which reports said didn’t work very well) and tanks fitted with mine plows, rollers and flails. Opening roads to convoys became major combat operations that involved up to a battalion’s worth of combat power, including helicopter borne units and extensive close air support. The engineers were kept busy throughout the war and became more skilled as their experience increased: in 1980, engineers cleared 1,032 mines and IEDs; in 1986, they cleared 35,650 mines and IEDs. Yet, the Mujaheddin were highly adaptive and continually created new IED tactics that remained a step ahead of the Soviet learning curve.
The Soviets never sent to Afghanistan vehicles specially designed to survive mines and IEDs, such as the U.S. MRAP family of vehicles. Their flat bottomed personnel carriers were particularly vulnerable to under-hull blasts. The Soviet expediency was to ride on the top of their armored personnel carriers, rather than inside, preferring the risk of getting shot or blown off the vehicle to being burned up inside.
The Soviet experience in Afghanistan showed the all-too familiar irregular warfare adaptation cycle where IED and mine counter-measures are beaten by new tactics, resulting in new countermeasures and then new insurgent tactics in an endless churn. The best tactic the Soviets found for securing roads from Mujaheddin bomber cells was the manpower intensive practice of placing strings of outposts within sight of each other to keep roadways under constant observation. It was the only approach that worked (Ultimately, the U.S. military used the same approach in Iraq on heavily IED seeded bits of highway such as Route Irish, also known as the Airport Road). But it was only in very limited areas that they had the manpower to pull it off.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is trying the high-tech equivalent, dispatching drones and aerial surveillance to provide electronic eyes to keep vital stretches of highway under constant observation. However, Afghanistan is a big country and there will never be enough electronic eyes to provide the unblinking stare.
Iraq showed the best counter-IED approach was to gather human intelligence on bomb making cells, target the networks, and pay off insurgents who were lured into corrying out attacks by a steady pay from insurgent coffers. That same approach is probably the most promising in Afghanistan.
Sources include Lester Grau’s: The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan; Afghan Guerrilla Warfare: In the Words of the Mujaheddin Fighters; and The Soviet-Afghan War by the Russian General Staff.