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Afghan IEDs Show Rapid Adaptation

At a New America Foundation sponsored event today in Washington, researcher Alec Barker presented an impressive collection of data on IED attacks in southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan that show not only more attacks but an acceleration of bomb making skill and use.

Thoroughly schooled in Iraq, where techniques were refined over the years, the IED bomber guild has increased in size and skill and taken their know-how on the road, compressing the training cycle. The rapid pace of innovation in consumer electronics which are used in most triggering devices, has allowed bombers to jump from one triggering method to another as soon as countermeasures show up in the field. With plenty of targets in the form of foreign troops, Afghan insurgents, as with Iraqi insurgents, are able to continually refine and evolve their tactics.

As an example of the rapid pace of bomber innovation, Barker said it took the Irish Republican Army 30 years to progress from command wire bombs to remotely triggered devices. “By contrast, it took about six years for militants to make the same improvements in Chechnya, three year for fighters in Gaza, and about 12 months for insurgents in Iraq.”

The IED bazaar is found on the internet, said retired general and former commander of the Pentagon’s counter-IED task force, Montgomery Meigs, who also spoke at New America. How-to manuals and an extensive video catalog of attacks are readily available on the internet. The IED phenomenon has gone global, Meigs said, with drug cartels in northern Mexico now using the weapons.

While bomber knowledge from veterans of the Baghdad university urban battlefield has certainly found its way to Afghanistan, there is also significant evidence of cross-pollination between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban branches. Data mapping shows a heavily seeded “IED highway” running between Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and Quetta in western Pakistan. Most Taliban IEDs are detonated by remote radio frequency devices, despite the heavy use of radio frequency jammers there. Some have progressed to using low-metal switches that are difficult to detect with mine detectors.

Nearly 80 percent of all casualties in southern Afghanistan are caused by IEDs. The attacks in Afghanistan are deadlier than they were in Iraq because troops patrol on foot more in Afghanistan than Iraq. Even a small bomb can wreak bloody havoc on dismounted troops while it would have no effect against heavily armored MRAP vehicles, Meigs said.

Luckily for troops in Afghanistan, one of the deadliest insurgent weapons from Iraq, explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), a finely-machined, shaped-charge warhead able to penetrate the heaviest armor, have not shown up in significant numbers in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the U.S. military never saw Sunni insurgents using the lethal EFPs, Meigs said. It was an exclusively Shiite weapon.

Barker said the solution to IED attacks is not more spending on new technologies but better human intelligence on the bomber networks, finding a human solution to a human problem. Meigs disagreed somewhat, saying that investments in new high-tech sensors that could spot IEDs, have greatly aided troops in the field.

Meigs, who spent much of this time at JIEDDO battling perceptions that his task force was a waste of money, did say the training his teams provided troops in the field greatly decreased the number of lethal IED attacks in Iraq as they learned to better spot the devices. The various Sunni “awakenings” movements, where insurgents decided to quit attacking U.S. patrols with IEDs and chose to side with the U.S. military in order to survive the Sunni vs. Shia civil war in Iraq, was a big reason IED attacks dropped so dramatically in 2007.

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