The use of roadside bombs in Afghanistan against foreign troops and civilians has reached record highs, with US forces struggling to cut off the flow of Pakistani fertilizer used to build them.
Taliban insurgents battling US and NATO-led forces for nearly a decade are now using a growing number of improvised explosive devices (IED) to strike personnel or vehicles along Afghanistan’s dusty roads.
The Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), a specialized body tasked with putting a stop to the use of the often remote-controlled roadside bombs, offered a bleak assessment of the situation now facing foreign forces.
“During the last 12 months, an unending supply of calcium ammonium nitrate, originating almost exclusively from Pakistan, has been used to produce IEDs in -Afghanistan despite a countrywide ban” on importing the fertilizer, JIEDDO spokeswoman Irene Smith said.
From April to June, 3,485 IEDs exploded or were found in the war-ravaged country, according to JIEDDO — a 14 percent increase over the same period last year. In June, use of roadside bombs was 25 percent higher than average.
Ground troops, who are trying to reach out to the population as part of the strategy to defeat the Taliban, are particularly vulnerable to IED attacks. Use of roadside bombs against them surged 59 percent in the spring.
However, coalition forces are not standing idly by. About 1,900 weapons caches were discovered in the spring, three times more than last year, according to JIEDDO figures.
NATO-led troops have also seized about 100 tonnes of homemade explosives and “removed over 300 high-value individuals” since the start of November last year, Major General James Terry, commander of ISAF forces in the south, told reporters.
Last year, IEDs — the weapon of choice for lightly armed insurgents battling advanced militaries — were responsible for 60 percent of coalition deaths, even if only one in 10 bombs leads to casualties.
The IEDs have not only been used against heavily armed foreign troops, but also against the local population, accounting for one-third of all civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year.
“Civilian deaths from IEDs increased 17 percent from the same period in 2010, making IEDs the single largest killer of civilians in the first half of 2011,” the UN said in a mid-year report on the conflict.
“Most of the pressure-plate IEDs used in Afghanistan contain approximately 20 kilos of explosive, more than twice that of a standard anti-tank mine — yet have the trigger weight of an anti-personnel mine,” the UN said.
JIEDDO says an overwhelming 84 percent of IEDs used in Afghanistan are made from calcium ammonium nitrate, developed by fertilizer manufacturers as an alternative to pure ammonium nitrate that could not be detonated.
Smith explained that the substance is “reprocessed by insurgents and then used as a homemade explosive main charge.”
Better cooperation with Pakistan is seen as essential to ending the flow of fertilizer into Afghanistan.
“Unless we neutralize this network, through a whole-of--government approach, we will never defeat the IED threat confronting our troops in Afghanistan,” Smith said.