Tue, Nov 16, 2010 - Page 5 News List

US to curb bomb ingredients’ entry into Afghanistan

NY Time News Service, WASHINGTON

With roadside bombs by far the leading killer of US troops in Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama’s administration has started a worldwide effort to stop the flow of ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer that is their basic ingredient, into the war ravaged country.

However, the campaign, dubbed Operation Global Shield, is running up against stubborn hurdles in Pakistan, where the police routinely wave tonnes of ammonium nitrate shipments across the border into Afghanistan despite that country’s ban on imports of the chemical. It is unclear whether the border guards are fooled by clever attempts to disguise the shipments as benign or are paid to turn a blind eye, or both.

The problem is compounded by lax enforcement in Afghanistan. While the Afghan government has at least passed a law banning the chemical, Pakistan has not yet done so.

Ammonium nitrate is commonly used in agriculture as a fertilizer. However, most Pakistani farmers use urea, an organic chemical, to fertilize their crops and there is only one factory in Pakistan that manufactures ammonium nitrate. That suggests, US officials said, that some of the caravans of trucks rumbling over the border into Afghanistan are carrying shipments imported into Pakistan, usually under false pretenses.

As a result, Operation Global Shield also seeks to curtail exports of the chemical to Pakistan by European allies like Germany and Sweden. Under the voluntary program, they have agreed to tighten customs procedures to try to make sure that ammonium nitrate does not end up in the hands of the Taliban or other insurgents.

The program also focuses on other so-called precursor chemicals, like potassium chloride, which can be used to make bombs.

“It’s long and it’s slow and it’s tough,” said Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in describing the plan devised by his office in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

“My goal would be to have detection devices at the borders, so that every shipment would be inspected and verified,” Holbrooke added. “To do that requires the cooperation of the Afghans and Pakistanis. The Afghans are quite willing, but we have a lot of work to do with the Pakistanis.”

Earlier this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a decree banning the import of ammonium nitrate. He gave Afghans 30 days to turn over supplies and ordered training for the police to detect illegal shipments.

Pakistani officials said that legislation regulating the use of ammonium nitrate and monitoring shipments of it was making its way through the Pakistani parliament. However, they also contend that pinning the blame solely on Pakistan is unfair, since some shipments of these chemicals were funneled into Afghanistan from Iran, over which the US has little control.

Smugglers have also become increasingly sophisticated, US administration officials said, masking the shipments by packaging them in wheat bags. Given the host of thorny security issues that divide Pakistan and the US, the issue of ammonium nitrate shipments can get lost in the shuffle.

However some US officials believe it needs to move up the list of priorities, since nearly two-thirds of combat fatalities among US and allied troops are caused by so-called improvised explosive devices, many of which use the chemical.

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