The U.S. Army is applying the same aggressive approach to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device, a roadside, or suicide car bombs) in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, and the Taliban are having a hard time adjusting to it. One of the more disturbing American tactics is to aggressively fight the bombers for control of key roads. This means that the army engineers are out on heavily mined roads every day in their specially equipped MRAPs, looking for IEDs to clear. It also means UAVs often patrol the road at night, using their night vision cams to spot Taliban teams burying a roadside bomb. This usually ends badly for the Taliban, as the UAV fires a Hellfire missile, or a nearby helicopter gunship comes over to kill the team. Sometimes there is a nearby rapid reaction team, that goes out and kills or, more importantly, captures members of the team. Dead or alive, the Taliban caught in these situations are valuable sources of information. And information is one thing that is being fought over. U.S. counter-IED tactics concentrate on discovering who is organizing the IED effort, and then going after the key members of that organization. This is done using a combination of powerful computer software, and traditional detective and military intelligence methods.
Take out the leaders and technical specialists (bomb builders) and the IED effort collapses. That worked in Iraq, and it is beginning to work in Afghanistan. These battles tend not to get covered much in the media, but there were many epic struggles in Iraq, which all ended up in the IED gangs going down. It takes time, but the pressure causes the gangs to spend less time concealing IEDS, and building smaller or less reliable ones. As more key people are lost, the IEDs efforts gets sloppy, and the Taliban losses accelerate.
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. 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 running at a rate that is only 13 percent higher 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 2007, you needed 49 and by 2008, you needed 79. In Afghanistan, it currently takes 53 IEDs to kill one foreign soldier, and that number is rising.
IEDs are even less effective in Afghanistan, but because they are the main cause of NATO casualties, they get a lot of media attention. 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. 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.
It's still the case that the specialists most in demand are the emplacers. This is the most dangerous job, as the roads are patrolled by UAVs, using heat sensors to spot anyone down there in the darkness. Once identified as emplacers, the UAVs shoot fast, and to kill. Needless to say, the highest casualties are among the emplacers. Overall, the Afghans are losing lost more people than the foreign armies are, just in the IED campaign.
Many of these specialist IED teams are independents, and hired themselves out to the money man who paid the best, or had a reputation for not losing people. Some of these teams were found advertising on the Internet. Men in each team got from $50 to several hundred bucks for each IED worked on.
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.
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.