“We are sweeping ammonium nitrate fertilizer off the battlefield at historic rates,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. “But the IEDs are going up at historic rates, too, and it is directly related. It is a supply issue.”
The homemade bombs, which are most often planted along roads and footpaths, are a leading killer of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The ammonium nitrate used as the explosive component is manufactured at two plants across the border in Pakistan, and officials said the manufacturer has resisted efforts to control the flow into Afghanistan.
Figures provided to The Washington Post show that U.S. and Afghan troops have seized about 480 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer this year, enough explosive material to manufacture 30,000 to 50,000 IEDs.
During the same period, U.S. and Afghan troops have either triggered or discovered 16,600 of the makeshift bombs, a slight increase over 2011. In June, U.S. and Afghan forces encountered 1,900 IEDs, a record number in a single month for the 11-year war.
“Unless we do something about the ammonium nitrate from Pakistan, we are going to continue to face these numbers and threats,” the senior U.S. official said.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has conducted several hearings and investigations into the smuggling of ammonium nitrate from Pakistan into Afghanistan. He has pushed for a tougher stance against Pakistan for failing to curtail the trade and is troubled by the lack of progress.
“One year ago this month, I met in Islamabad with senior officials who committed to comprehensively regulate the component materials of IEDs, including calcium ammonium nitrate,” Casey said in an interview. “Since then, there has been minimal progress. The administration will soon need to certify that Pakistan is addressing the IED threat in order to release millions in security assistance and, as of now, I cannot see how Pakistan will reach this threshold.”
The large number of IEDs uncovered this spring and summer, the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan, demonstrates that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has remained resilient even as U.S. forces have increased in recent years and the territory controlled by insurgent forces has been reduced.
U.S. troop levels are set to shrink to about 68,000 by the end of September, from a peak of about 100,000 in 2011. But once U.S. forces have left, the massive increase in explosive material flowing in to Afghanistan could make it difficult for Afghan troops to hold territory seized from the Taliban in recent years.