Bombs, Innovation, and Afghanistan

Bombs, Innovation, and Afghanistan

Bombs, Innovation, and Afghanistan

Science, technology, and life.
July 15 2009 10:10 AM

Bombs, Innovation, and Afghanistan

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Two years ago, we studied the lessons of

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, or IEDs, in Iraq. Since then, the United States has begun to implement withdrawal plans from that country. Now IEDs are spreading in Afghanistan. Have we learned our lessons?

In today's New York Times , James Dao reports that Afghan IEDs

are becoming more common and more sophisticated with each week, American military officers say. This year, bomb attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan have spiked to an all-time high, with 465 in May alone, more than double the number in the same month two years before. At least 46 American troops have been killed by I.E.D.'s this year, putting 2009 on track to set a record in the eight-year war. ... At the current rate, I.E.D. attacks on Afghan forces could reach 6,000 this year, up from 81 in 2003, an American military official said.

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At least three of the lessons we drew from Iraq seem to apply in Afghanistan. First, IEDs enable insurgents to strike with a level of precision that would be impossible from a distance. Second, IEDs can be assembled from inexpensive, readily available components, such as fertilizer, artillery shells, and cell phones. Third, instead of risking human lives, you can hunt or disable IEDs with dogs or robots. The bomber isn't risking his life. Why risk yours?

Afghan insurgents are exploiting the same cheap technology that worked in Iraq. According to Dao, "The bombs are often made with fertilizer and diesel fuel, but some use mortar shells or old mines that litter the countryside. Some bombs are set off when vehicles pass over pressure plates. Others require remote control, like a cellphone. Still others detonate with a button or a wire touched to a battery." Likewise, we're using familiar detection methods: dogs, robots, and drones.

So what has changed? One difference is a lower level of technology in Afghanistan. Sometimes this works to the insurgents' advantage:

With few paved roads, Afghanistan is even more fertile territory for I.E.D.'s. than Iraq, where hard pavement often forced insurgents to leave bombs in the open. Not so in Afghanistan, where it is relatively easy to bury a device in a dirt road and cover the tracks.

But it can also make them vulnerable. U.S. officials tell Dao that IED deployment networks connect top layers of "financiers, logistical experts, bomb designers and trainers" with lower layers of "bomb planters, often villagers or nomadic herdsmen paid $10 or less to dig holes and serve as spotters." The weak link is the top layer. In Afghanistan, there may be fewer people with the expertise to run such networks than there were in Iraq.

To get the key players, you have to operate like a crime scene investigator. Dao reports:

Like a police forensic unit and a bomb squad rolled into one, Lieutenant Brown's 25-member team not only disarms I.E.D.'s but also scours sites—more than 50 this year—for telltale signatures of a bomb. Soil samples, electrical parts, fingerprints and photographs are sent for analysis, and detailed reports are compiled in a central database.

This is one of the main questions being tested in Afghanistan: Can forensic investigation and a pooled database unravel IED networks? Can high-tech police work catch the experts and organizers instead of settling for the suckers who plant the bombs? IEDs, like drones , are an evolving story of measures and countermeasures, technologies of destruction and technologies of detection. We don't know how the story will turn out. But we know which weapon will prevail. It won't be a device. It will be a process, a talent, and an attitude: innovation.