Improvised Explosive Defeat?

By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 10, 2007

The photographs gathered by The Post each month in a gallery called Faces of the Fallen are haunting. The soldiers are so young, enlisted men and women mostly, usually dressed in the uniforms they wore in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's striking is that most of them were killed by roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The United States is losing the war in Iraq because it cannot combat these makeshift weapons. An army with unimaginable firepower is being driven out by guerrillas armed with a crude arsenal of explosives and blasting caps, triggered by cellphones and garage-door openers.

This is Gulliver's torment, circa 2007. We have thrown our money and technology at the problem, with limited effect. In 2004 the Pentagon created a special task force called the Joint IED Defeat Organization (or JIEDDO, in Pentagon-ese). It has spent $6.3 billion and assembled a staff of nearly 400, but every day more of our brave young people die, and we seem unable to stop it.

"Once the bomb is made, it's too late," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has studied the IED problem. She says the best hope is to disrupt the money and supplies that allow the bombs to be constructed.

Low-tech seems to trump high-tech. The military is operating nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with 150 in 2004. The latest model, dubbed "Fido," has a digital nose that can sniff explosives. Yet the bombs are so cheap and easy to make, and the robot sniffers are so expensive and finicky to operate, that the cost-benefit ratio seems to work in favor of the insurgents.

We have dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Iraq at any given time, monitoring highways and ammunition dumps and suspected terrorists. And we have many hundreds of additional sensors, adding more data. But the flow of this intelligence information is so vast that it overwhelms our ability to analyze it. Retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who heads JIEDDO, disagrees. "It's not true that there is so much data we're swamped and can't deal with it," he said.

Someday, perhaps, the Pentagon will track and target bombers by identifying biological tags -- smells or DNA traces that are unique signatures. Someday, we will be able to examine the microbes on an insurgent's skin or in his gut to find out if he was trained in Iran or the Bekaa Valley or Afghanistan. But in a world with an ever-expanding supply of suicide bombers, will such technology make any difference?

The insurgents who kill our young soldiers are ruthless, but we have sometimes been cautious in our response. Take the question of targeting bomb makers: There may be an unlimited supply of explosives in Iraq, but there is not an unlimited supply of people who know how to wire the detonators. In 2004, CIA operatives in Iraq believed that they had identified the signatures of 11 bomb makers. They proposed a diabolical -- but potentially effective -- sabotage program that would have flooded Iraq with booby-trapped detonators designed to explode in the bomb makers' hands. But the CIA general counsel's office said no. The lawyers claimed that the agency lacked authority for such an operation, one source recalled.

There are technologies that would allow us to detonate every roadside bomb in Iraq by heating the wires in the detonators to the point that they triggered an explosion. But these systems could severely harm civilians nearby, so we're not using them, either. "In our system, we often are not given credit for the fact that we are very concerned about collateral damage," Meigs said.

We wrote the book for the insurgents, in a sense. By arming and training the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, we created the modern dynamics of asymmetric warfare. That extends even to the fearsome armor-piercing "explosively formed penetrators," or EFPs, that we have accused the Iranians of supplying to Iraqi insurgents. The CIA referred to these tank busters as "platter charges" in the days when we were covertly helping provide them to the Afghan rebels.

The simple, low-tech answer to the IED threat is to reduce the number of targets -- by getting our troops off the streets during vulnerable daylight hours, to the extent possible. It's an interesting fact that very few IED attacks have been suffered by our elite Special Forces units, which attack al-Qaeda cells and Shiite death squads mostly at night, with devastating force. They blow in from nowhere and are gone minutes later, before the enemy can start shooting. That's the kind of asymmetry that evens the balance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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