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Afghanistan war: why IEDs are taking a mounting toll

As US troop levels have surged in the Afghanistan war, so has the number of IEDs – and their effectiveness. Their simplicity is making them hard to detect.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 7, 2010

Sgt. Thomas James Brennan verifies that mine sweeper Lance Cpl. James Roche, both from the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, Alpha Company, has discovered a roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device (IED) during patrol in the town of Nabuk in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province Oct. 31.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

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Washington

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is touring Afghanistan this week to gauge progress on the ground, but back in Washington, the Pentagon is already wrestling with what to do about the “significant” increase in the number and effectiveness of roadside bombs throughout the country.

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Between June 2009 and 2010, insurgents’ use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, rose by 22 percent. More worrying, say senior US military officials, is that the rate of effective attacks – in other words, bombs that result in injuries to NATO troops or Afghan civilians – has increased 45 percent.

Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, says there has been a “significant” rise in the number of roadside bombs because even as the US military has surged into Afghanistan, the Taliban has surged, too.

And paradoxically, Lt. Gen. Oates says, a lack of technological expertise among Afghans means the locally manufactured IEDs are of a simpler design than those deployed against US forces in Iraq, making them harder to detect by NATO troops and hence more effective.

In Iraq, the US military was accustomed to relatively sophisticated roadside bombs with military-grade munitions and remote detonators that were made with everything from walkie-talkies to children's toys. But in Afghanistan, Oates says, where literacy rates are low – in the single digits in some towns – there is a “degree of education and training” that is difficult to find, including among those inclined to build bombs.

Afghan bomb-makers also lack access to high-grade munitions. As a result, Oates says, the majority of bombs in Afghanistan today are made with simple ammonium nitrate, commonly found in fertilizer. The low metallic content in fertilizer-based bombs is “very difficult” to detect, he says, and much of the high-tech bomb-detection equipment that worked well in Iraq does not help in Afghanistan.

Help from Iran?

That said, Oates adds, Afghan insurgents do not appear to be getting much help from Iran in building bombs. It was Iranian-made roadside bombs in Iraq known as EFP’s, or explosively-formed penetrators, that were particularly lethal to US troops.

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