Logistics: Whatever It Takes To Keep The Explosives Coming


September 8, 2011: For over two years now, NATO has been trying to stem the flow of bomb making materials into Afghanistan. The principal bomb component (in over 80 percent of bombs) is ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Pakistan has one factory producing this stuff, and an examination of their records (past sales, and sales since the roadside bomb campaign intensified) show that in the past year, additional ammonium nitrate fertilizer has been sold, and smuggled into Afghanistan, sufficient to make over 100,000 bombs. Not that many bombs have actually been used, but that’s because a lot of the ammonium nitrate is intercepted, or destroyed by air or ground raids. A lot gets through, enough to keep the Taliban supplied with roadside bombs.

The U.S. has been unable to get Pakistan to take strong action on this issue (by limiting how much ammonium nitrate fertilizer their factory can sell and to whom). The Pakistanis point out, with some justification, that farmers will sell their “legal” ammonium nitrate fertilizer if the price is high enough. And that’s what the Taliban have been doing, paying as much as they have to for ammonium nitrate.

Afghanistan banned the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer 21 months ago. The reason was that this fertilizer, mixed with the right amount of fuel oil, can be detonated as an explosive. The government had, for years, been urging farmers to stop, for environmental reasons, using ammonium nitrate. But farmers don't like urea based fertilizers, which are now the only kind they can legally use. Any ammonium nitrate fertilizer found in Afghanistan is seized and destroyed, unless only Afghan police or troops are involved, in which case a suitable bribe can often be negotiated. Many in the security forces are not willing to be bought off, as civilians and Afghan security forces are the most frequent victims of ammonium nitrate bombs.

The terrorists now smuggle ammonium nitrate in from Pakistan, although the Afghan government has made it difficult to sneak ammonium nitrate in via truck. That is still done, because most trucks are not inspected. If you slip a few bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer into some other cargo, and pay the truck driver, say, $20 a bag, you can usually get the stuff through.

Bringing the fertilizer in over the mountain trails, on mules is more expensive. But the Taliban can afford to pay, because of their links to the drug gangs. Both groups want foreign troops out of the country, so heroin can be produced and smuggled without interference.

In Afghanistan, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device, a roadside, or suicide car bomb) now cause over 70 percent of NATO casualties. It has also been discovered that there was one big difference between the IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan; the explosives used. In Iraq, there were thousands of tons of munitions and explosives scattered around the country after the 2003 invasion was over. This was the legacy of Saddam Hussein, and the billions he spent on weapons during his three decades in power. The Iraqi terrorists grabbed a lot of these munitions, and used them for a five year bombing campaign.

With no such abundance of leftover munitions, the Taliban had to fall back on a common local explosive; ammonium nitrate. This is a powdered fertilizer that, when mixed with diesel or fuel oil, can be exploded with a detonator. While having only about 40 percent the power of the same weight of TNT, these fertilizer bombs are effective as roadside bombs. But they are bulkier and a slurry. Moreover, the fuel oil must be mixed thoroughly and in exactly the right proportion, otherwise the explosive effect is much less than expected. But the biggest problem is that if you can't get the ammonium nitrate, you have no explosives. Thus the Taliban pay a lot of attention to spending whatever it takes to keep the ammonium nitrate coming.




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