Eighty percent of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted in Afghanistan (resulting in 90% of all U.S. casualties) are made with components that come from just two legally operating factories in Pakistan. And while NATO forces know exactly where those factories are, and who the brokers are who sell their goods, there has been nothing they can do to stop the flow of materials to Afghan insurgents, according to the American general in charge of the anti-IED fight.
Each year, the two factories each pump out about 400,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate—a common fertilizer used by farmers—and about 1% of that makes it to insurgents, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, head of the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), said in a breakfast meeting with defense industry representatives this morning. While NATO forces have a lock on where the fertilizer comes from and where it goes upon initial sale, “what we don’t understand is how this ammonium nitrate gets from these factories to the insurgents,” he said.
Once insurgents get the stuff, “it takes from 40 minutes to an hour of processing” to make the fertilizer into bomb materials, he said. Echoing other American officials who have long complained about Pakistan acting as a haven and resupply point for Afghan insurgents, Barbero said that “we can’t solve the IED problem in Afghanistan, in Afghanistan."
And the bombs keep coming. Compared to the same time last year, the number of IEDs found and cleared is up about 100%, and the destruction of caches of bomb-making materials is up about 200%. “We’re seeing historic highs” of IEDs planted, with a record 1,600 “events” June and July of this year, he added. Still, JIEDDO was given $2.4 billion to fight the anti-IED fight in 2011, a figure that Barbero says he expects to remain about the same over the next two years.
One of the programs he highlighted came as a result of direct feedback from soldiers in the field, who told Army leadership that they didn’t want or need any large, heavy robots to try to detect roadside bombs. Instead, they said they need lightweight, disposable robots that they could toss around corners and, if lost, replace easily. Taking that feedback, JIEDDO issued a formal request in June for “off-the-shelf, lightweight handheld robots,” the first batch of which will reach Afghanistan in December for operational testing. The bots are probably the 10-lb., camera-mounted Sand Flea robots that can leap 24 ft. in the air in order to clear compound walls that the Army Times recently reported the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force was sending to Afghanistan. But the Sand Flea is hardly the only throwable robot that the Army is interested in. ReconRobotics recently signed contracts with the Army for about 700 1.2-lb. camera-mounted Throwbots, which one can assume are heading for Afghanistan, and iRobot is furiously working on its First Look, a 5-lb. throwable robot that it is shopping around.
Bots or no bots, ammonium nitrate-based bombs are hard to detect, and the fact that their production can be directly traced back to poor enforcement at the Pakistani border is just another data point in how toxic the relationship has become between the U.S.and its … ally.