Attrition: The Decline Of The IED


October 2, 2011: The first decade of the war on terror has killed 6,300 American troops, most of them (71 percent) in Iraq. The most common (47 percent) cause of death overall was roadside bombs and mines. These weapons have been less effective in Afghanistan, where they only caused 39 percent of deaths. All this was in sharp contrast to Vietnam, where 14 percent of American deaths were from bombs and mines.

In Iraq, where the widespread use of bombs and mines began, the U.S. mobilized a multi-billion dollar effort to deal with IEDs (improvised explosive devices, usually roadside bombs), and that effort paid off. New technology (jammers, robots), tactics (predictive analysis and such), equipment (better armor for vehicles and troops) and a lot of determination did the job. Gradually, IEDs became less dangerous. In 2006, it took about five IEDs to cause one coalition casualty (11 percent of them fatal). By 2008 it took nine IEDs per casualty (12 percent fatal). In 2006, only 8 percent of IEDs put out there caused casualties. In 2007, it was nine percent. In 2008, it was less than five percent. At that point, it was clear that the battle with IEDs was being won. The main objective of IEDs was to kill coalition troops, and at that, they were very ineffective. In 2006, you had to use 48 to kill one soldier in Iraq. In 2007, you needed 49 and by 2008, you needed 79. This year there have only been a handful of American deaths from IEDs in Iraq.

Iraqi terrorists are still using roadside bombs, but most of the casualties are Iraqi police, soldiers and civilians. A major reason for the low losses has been MRAP armored trucks, designed to protect its passengers from IEDs, and years of experience in detecting IEDs before they can hurt anyone. New tactics and technologies show up every month. One of the latest items is a data collection system that, thanks to very fast computers, is able to constantly monitor information from thousands of sensors, and predict where IEDs are likely to show up. These warnings show up in the form of red dots on maps displayed in laptops carried in most vehicles. When the engineers or bomb disposal teams check out the dots, and either dispose of the bomb, or confirm that one is not there, the dots disappear.

In Afghanistan, conditions are different. There, IEDs are more frequently used against troops on foot patrol. These, more than attacks on vehicles, tend to cause multiple fatalities. In Afghanistan, the enemy also uses more land mines, both against troops and larger ones against vehicles travelling the numerous dirt roads.

The Taliban, unable to withstand foreign troops in a gun battle, have put most of their resources into an IED campaign. Thus the number of IEDs encountered went from 2,678 in 2007 to than 12,000 last year. This year, the number is declining.

In Afghanistan foreign troops have been on the offensive this year, and more exposed to IED attacks in areas where there has not been time to clear out the IEDs. This is especially true with land mines, which are easier to plant and more difficult to avoid. The mines end up causing more civilian casualties as well, because the Taliban often don't remove the ones that did not go off, or mark the areas where they are. If foreign troops do not encounter mines, and thus have an opportunity to clear them, civilians will eventually encounter them and get hurt.

In Afghanistan, the enemy started off with one big disadvantage, as they didn't have the expertise or the resources of the Iraqi IED specialists. In Iraq, the bombs were built and placed by one of several dozen independent gangs, each containing smaller groups of people with different skills. At the head of each gang was a guy called the money man. That tells you something about how all this works. Nearly all the people involved with IED gangs were Sunni Arabs, and most of them once worked for Saddam and learned how to handle explosives. The gangs hired themselves out to terrorist groups (some of them al Qaeda affiliated), but mainly to Baath Party or Sunni Arab groups that believed the Sunni Arabs should be running the country. You got the money, these gangs got the bombs.

The money man, naturally, called the shots. He hired, individually or as groups, the other specialists. These included scouts (who found the most effective locations to put the bombs), the bomb makers, the emplacers (who placed the bomb) and the trigger team, that actually set the bomb off, and often included an ambush team, to attack the damaged vehicles with AK-47s and RPGs. The trigger team also usually included a guy with a video camera, who recorded the operation. Attacks that failed were also recorded, for later examination to discover what could be improved.

Survivors of the al Qaeda defeat in Iraq fled to Afghanistan, where they brought all these techniques with them. But the Afghans did not have the level of training and experience available in Iraq, so the Afghan IED effort got off to a slow start.

In Iraq, interrogations of captured IED crew members indicated that most IED teams operated on a two week cycle. During this period, the gang prepared and placed from a few, to a dozen IEDs in one, carefully planned operation. Once the money man decided on what area to attack, the scout team (or teams) spent 4-5 days examining the target area, to see how troops, police and traffic operated. They recommend places to put the bombs, and the money man decided how many to build and place where. In Afghanistan, there was less of the two week cycle work, and more planting mines and roadside bombs around areas they wish to protect, especially drug related facilities (where heroin is refined or stored awaiting movement out of the country.)

The bomb makers were contracted to build a certain number of bombs and have them ready for pick up by the emplacers on a certain day. The trigger teams were either already in place, or arrived shortly after the emplacers had successfully planted their bombs. Most of the bombs were discovered and destroyed by the police or troops. Increasingly, the trigger teams were discovered, and attacked, as well. This is where a lot of bomb team members were captured. These men often provided information on other members of the team, which resulted in more arrests.

Thousands of men, involved with these IED gangs, were constantly being captured or killed. There were always plenty of new people willing to have a go at it. The main reason was money. The opportunity to make a month's pay for a few hours, or days, work was worth the risk. But there was a serious shortage of people with technical skills to actually build the bombs. As more of these men were killed or captured, there were fewer bombs, and more of them were duds. This has already been seen in some parts of Afghanistan. There, as the local IED gang is busted up, there follows by several weeks, or months, of no IEDs. But the IEDs are the only effective weapon the Taliban and drug gangs have, so they are spreading millions of dollars around for those willing to get involved.

NATO troops, and particularly the United States, are making a major effort to detect IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs), which have accounted for up to 60 percent of deaths among foreign troops. About several billion dollars' worth of special equipment has arrived in Afghanistan over the last few years, more than doubling the amount of specialized gear used for detecting IEDs, and identifying the personnel making, placing and setting off the bombs. Several thousand specialists arrived to operate the special detection and intelligence programs. The number of IED deaths declined as more anti-IED resources entered the country.





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