Attrition: The Enemy Below

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November 15, 2010:  Iraqi terrorists are still using roadside bombs, but most of the casualties are Iraqi police, soldiers and civilians. So far this year, only eight Americans have been killed by IEDs (improvised explosive devices, usually roadside bombs), and 224 wounded. 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.

In Afghanistan, the IED campaign is peaking, with some 11,000 used so far this year, killing 335 foreign troops. That's one death per 30 IEDs. One unique characteristic of Afghanistan IEDs is the large number 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 about 8,200 last year and likely more than 12,000 this year. But signs of how effective the Iraq counter-IED methods can be are already showing up. For example, in March, there were 989 roadside bombs encountered in Afghanistan, compared to 429 in March of 2009. But casualties are not up by nearly as much, with, 39 foreign troops killed, compared to 28 in March, 2009. IED deaths were 275 last year, but are more than double that this year. But because there are more foreign troops in action this year, the casualty rate only 15 percent higher. That is largely due to more foreign troops out looking for the enemy this year,

As the use of IEDs in Iraq moved to Afghanistan, so did all the techniques U.S. troops developed to deal with these devices. In Iraq, the U.S. mobilized a multi-billion dollar effort to deal with IEDs, and that 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. 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.

It's been different in Afghanistan, where 3,600 foreign troops were killed or wounded by 11,000 IEDs so far this year. It's been taking about 30 IEDs to kill one foreign soldier, mainly because the foreign troops are on the offensive, 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 the foreign troops do not encounter mines, and have an opportunity to clear them, civilians will eventually encounter them.

IEDs are the main cause of NATO casualties in Afghanistan, despite the fact that 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 fail, are also recorded, for later examination for things that 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) spend 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 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, are being sought. 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 is a serious shortage of people with technical skills to actually build the bombs. As more of these men were killed or captured, there will be fewer bombs, and more of them will be duds. This has already been seen in some parts of Afghanistan, as the local IED gang was busted up, followed 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.

As a result, foreign troops in Afghanistan appear headed for losses of about 700 troops this year. At an annual rate, that's 500 dead per 100,000 troops per year. In 2007-8, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. That went up to nearly 500 last year. In Iraq, from 2004-7, the deaths among foreign troops ran at 500-600 per 100,000 per year. Since al Qaeda admitted defeat there two years ago, the U.S. death rate in Iraq has dropped to less than 200 dead per 100,000 troops per year. During World War II, Korea and Vietnam, American troops suffered losses at the rate of about 1,500 killed per 100,000 troops per year.

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 $1.5 billion worth of special equipment is arriving in Afghanistan this year, doubling the amount of specialized gear used for detecting IEDs, and identifying the personnel making, placing and setting off the bombs. Another thousand specialists are arriving to operate the special detection and intelligence programs.

The number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan has been going up because there are more foreign troops in Afghanistan, and more of them are out looking for Taliban gunmen and drug gang operations. Both these endeavors often lead to gun battles, and encounters with land mines. But these trips outside the wire also damage the drug operations that the Taliban protects. This is forcing the drug gangs to try and move their operations, and is causing prices for opium and heroin to increase over 50 percent locally.

 

 


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