Posts Tagged ‘Indiana National Guard’

Fertilizing Insurgency

November 21, 2009

The Afghan insurgents’ improvised explosive devices are responsible for 80% of the casualties in this war. The bombs—buried in roads and trails, plastered into house walls, secreted in fields and orchards—cause horrific injuries. A relatively small IED can hurl dismembered bodies twenty-five feet in the air. The U.S.-led Coalition’s heavily armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles patrolling the IED-spiked roads don’t even offer total protection. Though they often protect the passengers from the shrapnel, the explosions are causing an epidemic of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) from the pressure waves and heads hitting walls and ceilings. Since 2007, the military has diagnosed 70,000 soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injury, 20,000 this year. Insurgents are now building IEDs large enough to rupture even the 37,000-pound, bank-vault-like MRAPs. IEDs are the greatest threat to the Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) in eastern Afghanistan’s volatile Khost Province.

Ironically, the main ingredient of this most feared and effective weapon is a basic agricultural product: ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Mixed with a fuel such as gasoline or diesel and armed with a power source and trigger, ammonium nitrate fertilizer has the 75% of the explosive power of TNT. And it is ubiquitous in Afghanistan.

While it has been outlawed since 2005, ammonium nitrate fertilizer is still commonly imported from neighboring Pakistan, both for farming and bombs. Earlier this month, Afghan authorities raided a warehouse in Kandahar, where they seized a half-million pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, 5,000 100-pound bags, along with 2,000 bomb devices, including timers and triggers. Fifteen Afghans were captured.

After the raid, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a press conference the obvious: the ammonium nitrate ban wasn’t being enforced. He said, “If we have to pay for some of it, I’m open to that.” A U. S. State Department official at Bagram Airfield, the largest Coalition base in Afghanistan, says there is now a directive to pay $28 for each bag of fertilizer turned in or seized. “We’re finding it everywhere,” he says.

The average size of an IED is about sixty pounds, most often packed into a plastic bowl or bucket to prevent metal detectors from finding it. Small anti-personnel mines, called toe-poppers, are sometimes packed in discarded ½-liter water bottles. According to Secretary Gates, aging Soviet-era mines serve as the initiators, though blasting caps work equally well. (In the hullabaloo following the Kandahar seizure, Gates announced a major new counter-IED initiative, as he decided the multi-billion-dollar, hydra-headed interagency JIEDDO—Joint IED Defeat Organization—wasn’t doing the job, an assessment underscored by a Government Accountability Office report two weeks earlier that criticized JIEDDO for a lack of organization and reliable data.)

Pressure plates were initially the most common IED triggers, sometimes hidden in military litter, such as plastic MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) bags or even candy wrappers. In Khost Province, where the Indiana ADT is working, trip wires are the most common triggers.

On a recent Quality Control/Quality Assurance mission to Tani District, an IED blew up a few hundred meters from where the ADT were paying Afghan villagers for their dam-building work. One ADT soldier says, “We were paying them, and Boom! We could see the smoke.” Most likely a band of Taliban operating out of a village about a kilometer away had earlier buried the IED. After the ADT convoy rolled further up the mountain, the insurgents had armed the bomb for the returning MRAPs to trigger. But instead a speeding Afghan villager on a motorcycle tripped the IED. He luckily escaped with minor injuries.