With the number of improvised explosive attacks doubling in the past year, the Pentagon team in charge of rooting out the bombs is racing to assemble its response.
Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, the former commander of the 10th Mountain Division who was brought in three months ago to focus on the surge in Afghanistan, believes the numbers will come down.
“We’re going to see more casualties in the short term, but in the long term, as we just saw in Iraq, we’re going to improve the Afghan security force. We’re going to secure the population using them largely, and the IED will become less effective as a weapon system, and the Taliban will be less effective as an enemy,” Oates told reporters Thursday. “That is the thesis. We have proven it once, and I’m very optimistic we will prove it in Afghanistan.”
The use of IEDs in Afghanistan has skyrocketed in the past three years. While more than 2,600 IED attacks were counted in 2007, there were 1,000 this January alone. Oates said in his three months on the job, about 50 U.S. military members have been killed and 400 wounded by the devices.
Members of Congress have already criticized the Pentagon for perceived foot dragging in their response to the increased use of IEDs in Afghanistan. The previous commander of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Task Force, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, was excoriated by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) during an October hearing for not moving faster.
“We’re losing guys every day. What are we going to do tomorrow?” Hunter asked Metz, whose shop had received about $16 billion over the previous four years to fight IEDs.
Oates, who after serving four tours in Iraq was called on to lead the fight against IEDs, estimates it will take about $2 billion and seven months from the time the troop surge began in December to put in place a “very robust counter-IED capability.”
But logistical hurdles in a country with few paved roads and not enough runways for the military’s enormous efforts could impede that schedule of progress by July.
Late last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates established a senior task force to coordinate efforts to add more drones and mine-resistant vehicles with JIEDDO’s anti-IED efforts. The new troops and equipment President Barack Obama called for in December are now beginning to arrive in the theater, providing new resources for the anti-IED fight, but also new targets for the devices.
“It’s more than coming soon; it’s arriving on the ground,” Oates said. “It’s going as fast as humanly possible.”
The IEDs seen in Afghanistan tend to be slightly different than those placed along the roads of Iraq. They are usually operated by plates, and the bombs, made of fertilizer, detonate when pressed, rather than being remotely detonated by individuals.
Oates downplayed the level of Iranian involvement in training or equipping the Taliban, saying while the U.S. has identified some evidence of Iranian help, they have not seen the deadly explosively formed penetrators used in Iraq. He noted that the Taliban continue to use the domestic black market to obtain bomb-making components and weapons.
“If you have enough money, you can pretty much acquire any type of explosive or military-grade capability you need in the world” in Afghanistan, he said. “This is what concerns me about the Taliban, which does not have a historical affinity with Al Qaeda and is now seeking hegemony in Afghanistan. They’re resourced through the poppy trade and with those resources can acquire lethal munitions and components from all over the world.”
According to Hunter, JIEDDO would be more effective if it had the authority to compel commanders on the ground to use the equipment they provide, instead of the current process in which they have to wait for commanders to request the equipment. But the primary way to defeat IEDs anywhere, he said, remains 24-hour watch over roadways in order to find the people burying explosives.
While Hunter said he sees progress, he added, “It’s been slow going.”
By JEN DIMASCIO