Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks have reached an all-time high in Afghanistan and Pakistan as militants gain more experience using the weapons, which account for the most casualties amongst coalition forces.
Senior US military officials quoted by the National Journal say that there were more than 1 600 IED strikes in June, which was 25% higher than the monthly average for the conflict. In May, by contrast, there were 1 250 IED attacks.
IEDs are the main cause of coalition casualties in Afghanistan. This year they have accounted for 158 of the coalition’s 283 battlefield deaths whilst causing 1 248 casualties between April and June – a 15% increase over the same period last year.
Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, head of the Joint IED Defeat Organisation, said that the increase in IED attacks is because of explosives coming from Pakistan.
The number of attacks from improvised explosive devices in neighbouring Pakistan has also increased, growing by more than 145% in the last four years, as expertise in the crude bombs has flowed from militants in Iraq to Afghanistan and eventually to Pakistan.
“Where this expertise is coming from, probably initially it came from Iraq, and then from Afghanistan and now it’s here,” a Pakistani intelligence official told Reuters.
He said there had been a dip in suicide bombings in Pakistan with a correspondent increase in IED attacks, which are increasingly the weapon of choice for Pakistan insurgents.
“It’s a lethal weapon,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said at the beginning of last month, vowing to equip security forces with better detection equipment.
According to figures provided by the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the number of IED attacks on Pakistani troops and security forces soared from 413 in 2007 to 1,015 in 2010, an increase of 145 percent.
But unlike in Iraq, where caches of munitions hidden by Saddam Hussein’s regime were the main source of explosive material, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, most IEDs are made using ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer in Pakistan.
In March last year, Pakistani authorities seized more than 6,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate hidden in a market in Lahore. Zulfiqar Hameed, a senior police official, said three men arrested had links with militants.
In an interview with the National Journal, Barbero said that 84% of the bombs in Afghanistan use calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer produced at a pair of large factories inside Pakistan. He said US officials had visited the facilities recently as part of a broad push to persuade Islamabad to “put some controls on the flow of this stuff,” but he noted that militants in Pakistan continue to send bomb components to their compatriots over the border in Afghanistan. “The overwhelming majority of it comes from Pakistan … and somehow makes its way into Afghanistan,” Barbero said.
“Explosives are very easily available,” said a senior police official in Peshawar, who requested anonymity to speak to the press. “If somebody wants to buy explosive material for mining or other work he can get it through legal ways, but then there is no check or tracking whether it’s used properly.”
Manuals for making IEDs are available on the internet, he said. “It is not a rocket science and it doesn’t require such a huge installation or factory to manufacture it.”
IEDs also take a heavy toll on Afghan civilians. A United Nations report released last month found that 1,462 Afghan civilians had been killed from January to June, nearly one-third by insurgent IEDs. The UN found that civilian deaths from IEDs were up 17% compared to the same period a year earlier, making the bombs the “single largest killer of Afghan civilians in the first half of 2011.”
Earlier this year, the US Army began sending “double-V hull” Stryker armoured personnel carriers to Afghanistan in hopes the new design will better protect troops against deadly roadside bombs.