Despite nearly a decade of costly and sometimes frantic struggle, the United States military has been unable to control the Afghan insurgents' most deadly weapon, the improvised explosive device, or IED. As the war's 10th fighting season opens, casualties are again on the rise, and senior U.S. officials expect the war's grim toll will claim even more dead and wounded.
In his first interview since taking over the Pentagon's counter-IED campaign in March, Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero told The Huffington Post he expects increased U.S., allied and Afghan casualties in the coming months as the fighting picks up and dismounted American troops push into areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan against fierce Taliban resistance.
"We're going to have good days and we're going to have bad days,'' said Barbero, a soft-spoken West Point officer with vast combat experience, agreeing that the casualty statistics are "horrifying.'' While Barbero acknowledged the skill needed to assemble and place IEDs, he insisted the growing casualties were not a sign that the insurgents are winning.
"As you put more cops in a bad neighborhood, your crime stats go up,'' he said. "Is the neighborhood safer? Yeah! We're putting in more troops and they are more active, so your contacts [with the enemy] go up. We expect that.''
So far this year, 80 American troops have been killed by IEDs. Since the war began in October, 2001, 980 U.S. troops have been killed by roadside bombs. Thousands more have been severely wounded.
The United States has spent more than $20 billion trying to prevent the damage of these primitive but deadly homemade bombs in Afghanistan. Most of these explosives are made with ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizer, that is made in "a couple of factories in Pakistan,'' Barbero said. The compound is packed in bags and carried by donkey cart or truck into Afghanistan. "It's everywhere,'' he said.
Much of the money the United States has spent to protect soldiers from IEDs in Afghanistan has gone to a dizzying array of high-tech devices, ranging from miniature robots to sensors mounted on balloons and unmanned drones, to handheld detectors, ground-penetrating radar and explosive-sniffing dogs.
The key stumbling block, Barbero said, is that soldiers and Marines are not well trained in using these technologies. "We have focused on pushing these equipments and enablers and detectors out to the theater -- and that's the right answer,'' he said. "But that creates a challenge of training.'' In some cases, he said, the first time soldiers and Marines see the new equipment is when they show up for duty in Afghanistan.
Increasingly, American commanders are leaving behind their heavy armored vehicles and instead sending their fighters out on dismounted patrols. This tactic, expanded under the direction of Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, puts the troops at greater risk as they plod across sandy stretches of desert and along narrow dirt paths inside walled villages. But being dismounted also puts soldiers closer to the population and, the theory goes, makes it easier to make friends and pick up intelligence.
"This enemy is savvy and smart,'' he said, and has reacted quickly to a key shift in U.S. tactics: In some cases, troops have had to fight their way through belts of IEDs in order to reach a village. But once they reach key terrain and stay there, local Afghans increasingly tip them off to caches where Taliban fighters have stored explosives, detonators and other weapons. The increased communcation is already paying off, Barbero said, as growing number of IEDs are being discovered before they explode.
Fifty-nine percent of all known IEDs last month were found, either as the result of tips or good detection by U.S. troops, according to Pentagon data. Some IEDs exploded without causing casualties.
But an increasing proportion of the bombs that did detonate killed U.S. and allied troops. Deadly attacks increased from 16 percent of all IED attacks in March to 19 percent in April.
To lessen the risk on these dismounted patrols, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), the Pentagon agency lead by Barbero, is training soldiers and Marines to know which gear best detects the kinds of IEDs used in different parts of the country, and which detectors work best when mounted on armored vehicles. They are teaching battalion command staffs how to integrate the information from cameras mounted on balloons and UAVs with local tips to identify and track insurgent IED networks: the couriers who bring in the explosive, the bomb-makers who mix and dry the explosive, the financiers and the locals paid to dig in the bombs.
JIEDDO has deployed an IED intelligence analyst with each U.S. combat battalion in Afghanistan, enabling the battle staff to get technical questions answered quickly. The analysts have access to an enormous JIEDDO database of intelligence, gathered from the CIA, the eavesdropping National Security Agency and other spy agencies, to piece together the connections between local IED cells and the insurgent groups that acquire and move large amounts of explosives and blasting caps.
The U.S. counter-IED effort may be increasingly sophisticated, but the bombs themselves remain relatively primitive. They often consist of a buried bucket of explosive, a small battery and a simple trigger fashioned from two sticks and some wire packed in a plastic bottle. The device is detonated when someone steps on the shallow-buried bottle, crushing it and competing the electric circuit. Unlike most of the IEDs in Iraq, which were detonated by an insurgent, the IEDs in Afghanistan are almost always "victim-operated,'' with the insurgents far away.
"It's a tough, dismounted fight,'' said Barbero, who spent 46 months in Iraq and was director of operations there during the 2007 surge ordered by President Bush and carried out by Gen. Petraeus, who was then the top commander in Iraq. Even more than in Iraq, Barbero added, "this is not about IEDs on the battlefield; the IED is the battlefield.''