Speaking on a conference call last month, Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, head of the Army’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (Jieddo) confirmed that the IED threat in Afghanistan is expanding, nearly doubling over the last year. He said that compared to the artillery shells and more sophisticated detonation devices used in Iraq, in Afghanistan the threat is “largely homemade explosives centered around two types of fertilizer: potassium chloride and ammonium nitrate, with rudimentary detonation capability, the majority of which is victim-operated, pressure plate or trip wire, followed by some command-wire detonations and remote control.”
The use of sophisticated IEDs in Iraq didn’t entirely result from thefts at unguarded weapons depots—Iran played a big role in supplying radical Shiite groups with sophisticated detonation and explosive capabilities. While Afghanistan also shares a border with Iran, there is less credible evidence of Iranian support there, Oates said. Instead of receiving assistance from Iran, the Quetta Shura Taliban—named for Quetta, the Pakistani city where the Afghan Taliban leadership set up shop after fleeing in 2001—receives support from sympathizers in Pakistan. But the Taliban are one part of the whole. The Haqqani network, which is allied with the Taliban but operates separately in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, has been especially deadly. It is blamed for the 2008 Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul and the February 2009 Kabul raids, as well as the December 2009 attack on Camp Chapman in Khost Province that killed seven CIA operatives.
Since its inception in 2006, the Pentagon is estimated to have funneled $20 billion to Jieddo—a figure that includes $3.4 billion the Obama administration is asking Congress to approve in Fiscal 2011, up from $2.2 billion approved in Fiscal 2010. The organization expects to receive additional money this year to support the surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
One of the signatures of an IED attack orchestrated by Haqqani fighters is the use of ammonium nitrate. As a result, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan, banned the import of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to Afghanistan. “When General McChrystal identified the threat to troops from ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers, none of which is produced in Afghanistan,” Oates said, “he went to [Afghan] President Karzai and in quick order had a presidential ban issued on ammonium nitrate fertilizers, both in the country and for importation.”
But shutting down the importation of ammonium nitrate doesn’t negate the threat. As seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents learn and adapt, and react to any roadblock coalition forces throw in their way. Oates, however, stayed positive. “We’re already anticipating and preparing for those contingencies.”
Read the rest of this story in the April issue of DTI. (A soldier digs for a buried IED in Afghanistan. Pic: US Army)