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'The single most effective weapon against our deployed forces'
VIDEO | The IED: Weapon of Choice
Washington Post staff writer Rick Atkinson and retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs explain how the improvised explosive device has become the "weapon of choice" for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, although IED attacks remain a small fraction of those in Iraq, the figures also have soared: from 22 in 2002 and 83 in 2003, to 1,730 in 2006 and a thousand in the first half of this year. Suicide attacks have become especially pernicious, climbing to 123 last year, according to a United Nations study, a figure that continues to grow this year, with 22 in May alone.
Insurgents have deftly leveraged consumer electronics technology to build explosive devices that are simple, cheap and deadly: Almost anything that can flip a switch at a distance can detonate a bomb. In the past five years, bombmakers have developed six principal detonation triggers -- pressure plates, cellphones, command wire, low-power radio-controlled, high-power radio-controlled and passive infrared -- that have prompted dozens of U.S. technical antidotes, some successful and some not.
"Insurgents have shown a cycle of adaptation that is short relative to the ability of U.S. forces to develop and field IED countermeasures," a National Academy of Sciences paper concluded earlier this year. An American electrical engineer who has worked in Baghdad for more than two years was blunter: "I never really feel like I'm ahead of the game."
The IED struggle has become a test of national agility for a lumbering military-industrial complex fashioned during the Cold War to confront an even more lumbering Soviet system. "If we ever want to kneecap al-Qaeda, just get them to adopt our procurement system. It will bring them to their knees within a week," a former Pentagon official said.
"We all drank the Kool-Aid," said a retired Army officer who worked on counter-IED issues for three years. "We believed, and Congress was guilty as well, that because the United States was the technology powerhouse, the solution to this problem would come from science. That attitude was 'All we have to do is throw technology at it and the problem will go away.' . . . The day we lose a war it will be to guys with spears and loincloths, because they're not tied to technology. And we're kind of close to being there."
Or, as an officer writing in Marine Corps Gazette recently put it, "The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons."
Military explosives technicians learning their craft at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida are taught that the bomb triggering the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886 was the first modern IED. T.E. Lawrence -- of Arabia -- wrote in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" that roadside bombs, which mostly targeted Turkish trains in World War I, made traveling around "an uncertain terror for the enemy."
The bomb that destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the truck bomb Timothy McVeigh used to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995, the devices detonated on trains in Madrid in 2004 and in the London transportation system in 2005 -- all were IEDs.
British troops encountered 7,000 IEDs during 30-plus years of conflict in Northern Ireland, according to a U.S. Army ordnance officer. But what the British faced in more than three decades is equivalent to less than three months in today's Iraq. Indeed, "the sheer growth of the thing," as a senior Army general put it, is what most confounds Pentagon strategists.
"The IED is the enemy's artillery system. It's simply a way of putting chemical and kinetic energy on top of our soldiers and Marines, or underneath them," said Montgomery C. Meigs, a retired four-star Army general who since December 2005 has served as director of the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization, the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar effort to defeat the weapon. "What's different is the trajectory. Three 152mm rounds underneath a tank, which will blow a hole in it, are artillery rounds. But they didn't come through three-dimensional space in a parabolic trajectory. They came through a social trajectory and a social network in the community."
Unlike conventional artillery, IEDs have profound strategic consequences, because the bomber's intent is to "bleed us in a way that attacks American political will directly and obviates the advantages we have in military forces," Meigs added. Thousands of bombs have also made U.S. troops wary and distrustful, even as a new counterinsurgency strategy expands the American military presence among the Iraqi people.