By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007
It began with a bang and "a huge white blast," in the description of one witness who outlived that Saturday morning, March 29, 2003. At a U.S. Army checkpoint straddling Highway 9, just north of Najaf, four soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, part of the initial invasion of Iraq, had started to search an orange-and-white taxicab at 11:30 a.m. when more than 100 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive detonated in the trunk.
The explosion tossed the sedan 15 feet down the road, killing the soldiers, the cabdriver -- an apparent suicide bomber -- and a passerby on a bicycle. Lt. Col. Scott E. Rutter, a battalion commander who rushed to the scene from his command post half a mile away, saw in the smoking crater and broken bodies on Highway 9 "a recognition that now we were entering into an area of warfare that's going to be completely different."
Since that first fatal detonation of what is now known as an improvised explosive device, more than 81,000 IED attacks have occurred in Iraq, including 25,000 so far this year, according to U.S. military sources. The war has indeed metastasized into something "completely different," a conflict in which the roadside bomb in its many variants -- including "suicide, vehicle-borne" -- has become the signature weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan, as iconic as the machine gun in World War I or the laser-guided "smart bomb" in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
IEDs have caused nearly two-thirds of the 3,100 American combat deaths in Iraq, and an even higher proportion of battle wounds. This year alone, through mid-July, they have also resulted in an estimated 11,000 Iraqi civilian casualties and more than 600 deaths among Iraqi security forces. To the extent that the United States is not winning militarily in Iraq, the roadside bomb, which as of Sept. 22 had killed or wounded 21,200 Americans, is both a proximate cause and a metaphor for the miscalculation and improvisation that have characterized the war.
The battle against this weapon has been a fitful struggle to regain the initiative -- a relentless cycle of measure, countermeasure and counter-countermeasure -- not only by discovering or neutralizing hidden bombs, the so-called fight at the roadside, but also by trying to identify and destroy the shadowy network of financiers, strategists, bombmakers and emplacers who have formed at least 160 insurgent cells in Iraq, according to a senior Defense Department official. But despite nearly $10 billion spent in the past four years by the department's main IED-fighting agency, with an additional $4.5 billion budgeted for fiscal 2008, the IED remains "the single most effective weapon against our deployed forces," as the Pentagon acknowledged this year.
As early as 2003, Army officers spoke of shifting the counter-IED effort "left of boom" by disrupting insurgent cells before bombs are built and planted. Yet U.S. efforts have focused overwhelmingly on "right of boom"-- by mitigating the effects of a bomb blast with heavier armor, sturdier vehicles and better trauma care -- or on the boom itself, by spending, for example, more than $3 billion on 14 types of electronic jammers that sometimes also jammed the radios of friendly forces.
For years the counter-IED effort was defensive, reactive and ultimately inadequate, driven initially by a presumption that IEDs were a passing nuisance in a short war, and then by an abiding faith that science would solve the problem.
"Americans want technical solutions. They want the silver bullet," said Rear Adm. Arch Macy, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Washington, which now oversees several counter-IED technologies. "The solution to IEDs is the whole range of national power --political-military affairs, strategy, operations, intelligence."
The costly and frustrating struggle against a weapon barely on the horizon of military planners before the war in Iraq provides a unique lens for examining what some Pentagon officials now call the Long War, and for understanding how the easy victory of 2003 became the morass of 2007.
This introduction and the four-part narrative that follows are drawn from more than 140 interviews with military and congressional officials, contractors, scientists, and defense analysts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Washington and elsewhere. Most agreed to speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the subject, or because they are not authorized to comment. Ten senior officers or retired officers, each of them intimately involved in the counter-IED fight, were asked to review the findings for accuracy and security considerations.
As U.S. casualties spiraled from dozens to hundreds to many thousands, the quest for IED countermeasures grew both desperate and ingenious. Honeybees and hunting dogs searched for explosives. Soldiers fashioned makeshift "hillbilly armor." Jammers proliferated, with names like Warlock, Chameleon, Acorn and Duke. Strategists concocted bomb-busting techniques, such as "IED Blitz" and "backtracking" and "persistent stare."
Yet bombs continued to detonate, and soldiers kept dying. The 100 or so daily IED "events" -- bombs that blow up, as well as those discovered before they detonate -- have doubled since the 50 per day typical in January 2006. The 3,229 IEDs recorded in March of this year put the monthly total in Iraq above 3,000 for the first time, a threshold also exceeded in May and June. "The numbers," one Army colonel said, "are astonishing."
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.
Insurgents often post video clips of their attacks on the Internet, the equivalent of taking scalps. They also exploit the Web -- either openly or in password-protected sites -- to share bomb-building tips, emplacement techniques, and observations about American vulnerabilities and countermeasures.
For example, a 71-page manual titled "Military Use of Electronics Prepared by Your Brother in Allah" was posted on a jihadist Web site earlier this year. Comparable in sophistication to an introductory college electrical engineering class, the manual provided color photos and detailed diagrams on "remote wirelessly operating circuit using a mobile phone for moving targets" and "employing timers to explode detonators using transistors."
The lack of success in combating IEDs has left some military officials deeply pessimistic about the future. "Hell, we're getting our ass kicked," said a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're watching warfare that's centuries old being played out in a modern context and we're all confused about it. The toys and trappings have changed, but asymmetric fighting, and ambush, and deceiving and outwitting your opponent, and using the strengths of your opponent against him, are ancient."
Others point to several heartening developments. The number of IED attacks declined in Iraq late this summer after five more U.S. brigades took the field as part of a troop "surge" ordered by the White House. American casualties from IEDs also dropped. Throughout Iraq, more than half of all makeshift bombs are found before they detonate.
Moreover, improved body and vehicle armor, as well as sophisticated combat medicine, mean that the proportion of wounded U.S. soldiers to those killed in Iraq is about 8 to 1, a survivability ratio much higher than in previous wars. Also, about 70 percent of wounded soldiers return to duty within three days, according to Pentagon figures.
"We've saved a lot of lives," Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England said in an interview last month. "We've had people killed and injured, but we've probably saved five or 10 times that number of people by preventing attacks, or capturing and killing [insurgents], or getting caches of weapons, or disabling them."
In 2003, almost every IED caused at least one coalition casualty. Now, Pentagon figures indicate, it takes four of the bombs to generate a single casualty. In addition to more aggressive attacks against IED networks, rather than simply defending against the device, various technological advances have shaped the battlefield.
The military, for example, now has about 6,000 robots, compared with a handful four years ago. And bombs detonated by radio-controlled triggers, which had become the most prominent killer of U.S. forces, today amount to only 10 percent of all IEDs in Iraq after the deployment of 30,000 jammers, with more on the way.
Still, as a "Counter IED Smart Card" distributed to American troops warns, "In Iraq, nothing is as it appears." The cycle of measure, countermeasure and counter-countermeasure continues.
Two particularly deadly IEDs now account for about 70 percent of U.S. bombing deaths in Iraq: the explosively formed penetrator, an armor-killing device first seen in May 2004, and linked by the U.S. government to Iran, and the "deep buried," or underbelly, bomb that first became prominent in August 2005.
Grievous as the IED toll has been on U.S. and coalition forces, the impact on Iraqis is greater. The Pentagon considers an explosion to be "effective" only if it causes a coalition casualty; this reflects a judgment that the strategic impact of an IED derives from its ability to erode American will, which in turn is predicated on casualties suffered by U.S. troops or their non-Iraqi allies. By this yardstick, the suicide truck bombs that killed more than 500 civilians in northwest Iraq on Aug. 14 of this year are considered "ineffective"; so, too, the IED on Sept. 13 that killed a prominent sheik in western Iraq whom President Bush had publicly praised a week earlier for his opposition to al-Qaeda extremists.
But few military strategists doubt that Iraq's future depends on reducing IED attacks of all sorts. "If you can't stop vehicle-borne IEDs from being detonated in public spaces, you can't build a stable society," a Navy analyst said.
No one is ready to declare the dip in the number of bombs this summer to be an enduring decline. Insurgents appear "able to put out more IEDs to maintain that constant level of death-by-a-thousand-cuts," a senior Pentagon analyst said. "We have not seemed able to put an upper bound on that number."
And there is another mostly unspoken fear. With approximately 300 IED attacks occurring each month beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan -- a Pentagon document cites incidents in the Philippines, Russia, Colombia, Algeria and Somalia, among other places -- the question occupying many defense specialists is whether the roadside bomb inevitably will appear in the United States in significant numbers. "It's one thing to have bombs going off in Baghdad, but it will be quite another thing when guys with vests full of explosives start blowing themselves up in Washington," said the Navy analyst. "That has all sorts of repercussions, for the economy, for civil liberties."
For now the device remains an indelible feature of the Iraqi and Afghan landscapes. "The enemy found a seam," said an Army colonel. "I don't think they knew it was a seam, but it just happened."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.