Afghan bombings expected to worsen

Foes' use of simple devices could grow with U.S. forces

April 05, 2009|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON -Military commanders in Afghanistan are bracing for a sharp increase in roadside and suicide bomb blasts as insurgents escalate attacks on allied troops and Afghan civilians, and as thousands of U.S. reinforcements pour into the country.

Already, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, cause 75 percent of all U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and are the leading cause of Afghan civilian deaths, according to U.S. and United Nations data. With 21,000 more troops on the way, the bombings are expected to intensify, posing a challenge to the Obama administration's strategy and to the U.S. military's high-tech countermeasures.

U.S. field commanders say the Taliban and other insurgents have launched an intensified campaign of terror and intimidation, using primitive bombs buried in roadbeds or detonated in crowds by suicide bombers.

The multibillion-dollar U.S. effort to defeat IEDs has featured drone spy planes, robotic vehicles, radio jammers, ground-penetrating radar, heavy armored vehicles and even blimps. That technology has helped to quell bomb attacks in Iraq, where insurgents use sophisticated devices often remotely detonated by garage door openers and cell phones - devices that can be electronically jammed.

But Afghan bomb-makers typically construct more primitive detonators of scrap wire and wooden sticks that are not affected by radar or radio jammers, leaving the U.S. military stuck with a lopsided, costly defense against maddeningly cheap attacks.

"We try to get ahead of them on the electromagnetic spectrum - and he goes back to a string and clothespin, a much more difficult problem to solve," Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, director of the Pentagon's counter-IED task force, complained recently at an Army forum. Metz's annual budget runs to $11 billion.

In an interview, Metz admitted frustration at being forced to build "million-dollar solutions to $100 problems. That's just isn't smart business," he fumed. "But it is saving lives."

Half of all known IEDs are discovered before they detonate. Still, bomb blasts have killed 24 of the 27 Americans who died in action so far this year in Afghanistan, more than twice the number for the corresponding period last year. Since the war began in late 2001, 201 American have been killed and 1,224 wounded in Afghanistan by IED blasts, according to Defense Department data through February 2009.

Last year, a record high of 725 Afghans were killed by IED blasts, the largest single cause of civilian war deaths, according to a new United Nations report.

Now, U.S. officers expect a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in IED attacks as the additional U.S. troops pour into Afghanistan and, under the Obama administration's new strategy, fan out across Taliban-dominated regions on rural secondary roads that are often unpaved and not regularly swept for IEDs.

The new strategy also calls for Americans to safeguard Afghan civilians, which will require the military to extend its counter-IED surveillance and protection over hundreds of villages and miles of rural lanes and paths where civilians are being targeted.

To help meet the demand, the Pentagon is dispatching several hundred additional IED experts to Afghanistan to serve as trainers, intelligence analysts, forensic experts and technical advisers, senior officials said.

Having to protect civilians as well "makes our job even more challenging - we can deal with it, but it is more challenging," said a senior officer involved in the counter-IED campaign in Afghanistan. The officer asked not to be named to protect his family.

"We are making a difference," he said in an interview. "But there's still too many people being killed and maimed by IEDs."

Afghanistan's primitive bombs are partly to blame because they are so easy to make and so difficult to detect, U.S. and allied IED experts said.

Often, rudimentary "pressure-plate" bombs are fashioned from two wooden sticks, a small coil spring and cast-off flashlight batteries buried in the road and wired through a detonator to one or more plastic buckets of fertilizer and diesel oil. The weight of a vehicle or even a passing pedestrian will push the two sticks together to close an electrical circuit, triggering an explosion.

IED experts in Afghanistan describe such devices as "victim-operated."

Insurgents are using greater amounts of homemade explosives to produce more lethal IED blasts, Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif, commander of allied forces in southern Afghanistan, recently told Pentagon reporters, putting at risk even the most heavily armored U.S. vehicles.

To help protect troops, the Pentagon has spent $27.6 billion to purchase almost 16,000 heavily armored trucks called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, at an average cost of $1.7 million each. Most of the vehicles have been used in Iraq but are too cumbersome for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the region, has said. The Pentagon is shopping for more nimble armored vehicles.

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