Homemade explosives found by US forces in Iraq. (Photo: Paul McLeary)
Late last week, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates added a new wrinkle to the Pentagon’s efforts to combat the IED threat in Afghanistan by announcing that he was launching a new IED task force to be led by Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Paxton, the Joint Staff’s director for operations J-3.
The announcement raised a few eyebrows, since over the past several years the Pentagon has pumped about $16 billion into the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), which evaluates what technologies and techniques work best to mitigate the IED threat. While JIEDDO is meant to be a clearinghouse of sorts for all counter-IED brainstorming and technology within the DoD, the “joint” in its name doesn’t always accurately reflect reality. The organization has virtually no institutional power, and the services are loathe to share their own counter-IED programs with it, something Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, director of JIEDDO, admitted before the House Armed Services Committee two weeks ago, when he reported that no central database on anti-IED efforts currently exists within the DoD. When I caught up with Gen. Metz after the hearing he told me that JIEDDO is “working on a database that has all of our efforts so that I can very quickly tell someone what did or did not work, and a log of all of the activity.” But, he said, he is “not aware of any database that’s got all of the services’ efforts” collected in one place.
This is a problem, and a big one. Gates said last week that that he wants the new task force “to break down the stove pipes” that keep the various counter-IED groups sprinkled throughout the military from working together. “We have people working all these different pieces,” he told reporters. “My concern is whether all this has been properly integrated and prioritized and aligned, and whether we are adaptable and agile enough.”
This, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told me on Friday, is exactly what the new task force is designed to do. With the institutional muscle that the task force is being given it is hoped that it will be able to get the services to begin working together rather than working the problem separately. But is this new task force a vote of “no confidence” in JIEDDO? Morrell said no way, adding that Gates “had a very tight meeting with some of the principles involved, where he announced this… he was meeting with the ISR Task Force, the MRAP Task Force, JIEDDO, intelligence officials, with CENTCOM, and with ISAF,” to hatch his plan. “This is more than a JIEDDO problem,” he continued, “if it’s just the bombs themselves, that’s one thing, if it’s just the vehicle protection itself, that’s one thing, if it’s just the intelligence, that’s another thing. [Gates] wants to make sure that all of these efforts are integrated and collaborating, and that’s what this is about. It’s not a shot at any one of those organizations, but he thinks that we’re now confronting a situation in Afghanistan where we have to make sure we are all pulling in the same direction in order to get ahead of these guys.”
Morrell also cautioned not to read too much into the fact that JIEDDO isn’t one of the chairs of the new task force, saying that “the ISR and MRAP task forces will also have a seat at the table,” and that while JIEDDO is good at forensics and spinning out technologies, this new working group is expanding its study to look at things like the Soviet experience with roadside bombs in Afghanistan—things JIEDDO hasn’t been tasked with. This is all well and good, but the fact remains that JIEDDO appears to be struggling for interagency respect and clout, and this new task force will hopefully compel the services to truly begin operating in a joint manner. The stakes are too high.