America looks for ways to fight its worst enemy: IEDs

David Ignatius
6 Min Read

The photographs gathered by The Washington Post each month in a gallery called “Faces of the Fallen are haunting. The soldiers are so young, enlisted men and women mostly, usually dressed in the uniforms they wore in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s striking is that most of them were killed by the roadside bombs known as “improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The United States is losing the war in Iraq because it cannot combat these makeshift weapons. An army with unimaginable firepower is being driven out by guerillas armed with a crude arsenal of explosives and blasting caps, triggered by cell phones and garage-door openers. This is Gulliver’s torment, circa 2007. The US has thrown its money and technology at the problem, with limited effect. The Pentagon in 2004 created a special task force known as the Joint IED Defeat Organization (or JIEDDO, in Pentagon-ese). It has spent $6.3 billion and assembled a staff of nearly 400, but every day more of our brave young people die, and we seem unable to stop it.

“Once the bomb is made, it’s too late, says Representative Ellen Tauscher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has studied the IED problem. She says the best hope is to disrupt the money and supplies that allow the bombs to be constructed.

Low-tech seems to trump high-tech. The military is now operating nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to 150 in 2004. The latest model, known as “Fido, has a digital nose that can sniff explosives. Yet the bombs are so cheap and easy to make, and the robot sniffers are so expensive and finicky to operate, that the cost-benefit ratio seems to work in favor of the insurgents.

We have dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Iraq at any given time, monitoring highways and ammunition dumps and suspected terrorists. And we have many hundreds of additional sensors, adding more data. But the flow of this intelligence information is now so vast that it overwhelms our ability to analyze it. We need new machines to explain what the existing machines are seeing, at still more expense.

Someday, perhaps, the Pentagon will track and target bombers by identifying biological tags – smells or DNA traces that are unique signatures. Someday, we will be able to examine the microbes on an insurgent’s skin or in his gut to find out if he was trained in Iran or the Bekaa Valley or Afghanistan. But in a world with an ever-expanding supply of suicide bombers, will such technology make any difference?

The insurgents who kill our young soldiers are ruthless, but we have sometimes been cautious in our response. Take the question of targeting bomb-makers: There may be an unlimited supply of explosives in Iraq, but there is not an unlimited supply of people who know how to wire the detonators. In 2004, CIA operatives in Iraq believed they had identified the signatures of 11 different bomb-makers. They proposed a diabolical – but potentially effective – sabotage program that would have flooded Iraq with booby-trapped detonators designed to explode in the bomb-makers’ hands. But the CIA’s general counsel’s office said no. The lawyers claimed the agency lacked authority for such an operation, one source recalled.

There are technologies that would allow American soldiers to detonate every roadside bomb in Iraq by heating the wires in the detonators to the point that they triggered an explosion. But these systems could severely harm civilians in the area, so we’re not using them, either. “We are constrained by the environment we’re in, and by the issue of collateral damage, says Tauscher.

We wrote the book for the insurgents, in a sense. By arming and training the mujahidin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, we created the modern dynamics of asymmetric warfare. That extends even to the fearsome armor-piercing “explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which we have accused the Iranians of supplying to Iraqi insurgents. The CIA referred to these tank busters as “platter charges, back when we were covertly helping provide them to the Afghan rebels.

The simple, low-tech answer to the IED threat is to reduce the number of targets – by getting our troops off the streets during vulnerable daylight hours, to the extent possible. It’s an interesting fact that very few IED attacks have been suffered by our elite Special Forces units, which attack Al-Qaeda cells and Shiite death squads mostly at night, with devastating force. They blow in from nowhere and are gone minutes later, before the enemy can start shooting. That’s the kind of asymmetry that evens the balance in Iraq and Afghanistan.Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatiusis published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.

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