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'The IED problem is getting out of control. We've got to stop the bleeding.'
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.
Summoned to neutralize a suspected bomb, a tech donned a cumbersome, blast-resistant outfit that resembled a deep-sea diving suit, with a transparent face shield and extra padding to protect femoral arteries, genitals and the spinal column. The robots then available to "interrogate" a device were crude and few in number, forcing the tech to conduct the examination himself.
"All you can hear is the fan in your helmet, your heart beating and your breathing," recalled Sgt. First Class Troy Parker, who served in Iraq in 2003. "And you're wondering if this is the last walk you're ever going to take."
Sometimes it was. On Sept. 10, 2003, in Baghdad, Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Robsky Jr. was trying to disarm an IED when an apparent RC-trigger detonated a mortar shell packed with C-4 plastic explosive. Robsky, 31, would be among more than 50 EOD technicians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the late summer of this year.
Within hours of his death, a call went out to assemble all EOD robots in Baghdad at the international airport for an inventory, according to a senior Navy EOD officer in Iraq at the time. They found 18 robots, and only six of them worked.
By late September 2003, Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's operations chief, believed that IEDs not only threatened soldiers in Iraq, who included his two sons and a nephew, but also posed a strategic risk to U.S. ambitions in the region. "The IED problem is getting out of control," he told Col. Christopher P. Hughes, a staff officer. "We've got to stop the bleeding."
A Lebanese American West Point graduate like Abizaid, Cody was the son of a Chevrolet dealer in Montpelier, Vt. Stocky and intense, with thick hair the color of gunmetal, he had fired the first shots of the Gulf War in January 1991 while attacking an Iraqi radar site as commander of an Apache helicopter battalion. His appetites ran to hard work, New York Times crossword puzzles, Red Man chewing tobacco, Diet Coke and two-pound bags of peanut M&Ms, which he could eat in one sitting.
Hughes drafted a sheaf of PowerPoint slides labeled "IED Task Force: A Way," which proposed forming a small unit with a Washington director and two field teams "designed to respond to incidents." To recruit active-duty Special Operations troops would take at least nine months, so with Cody's approval and a chit for $20 million, Hughes hired Wexford Group International, a security consultant in Vienna, Va. Two retired Delta Force soldiers soon arrived in room 2D468 of the Pentagon to begin assembling the field teams from a "black Rolodex" of former special operators.
To run his task force, Cody chose one of the Army's most charismatic young officers, Joseph L. Votel, then 45, who had just been selected for promotion to brigadier general. A tall, good-humored Minnesotan, Votel had commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. More recently, in Iraq, three of his Rangers had been killed near Haditha with a suicide bomb detonated by a pregnant woman; two other Rangers had died in a roadside bombing on Route Irish, near the Baghdad airport.
Votel expected the job of controlling IEDs to take six months, maybe eight. "And then we move on," he said. He moved his small staff into a shabby, malodorous corner of the Army operations center in the Pentagon basement and posted a sign on the wall: "STOP THE BLEEDING."
Even by Pentagon standards, the hours were brutal. Those who lived in the Washington exurbs typically rose at 3:45 a.m. to be at their desks by 5:30, where they remained until 9 p.m. or later. To avoid bureaucratic friction with other agencies, Votel advised: "Stay small, stay light, be agile, move quickly. . . . There's goodness in smallness."
About a dozen former Delta Force operators were hired as contractors for the nucleus of the field teams. Some would earn $1,000 a day while deployed, according to two knowledgeable officers. Cody sent them to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to interview soldiers wounded by IEDs, to learn "what they wished they had done" before being blown up.
|U.S. ordnance experts prepare a line of artillery shells before a meticulously planned explosion at an ammunition storage site next to Aswalim village southeast of Baghdad in June. Such shells are routinely made into IEDs. (Petros Giannakouris / AP)|
In his diary on Nov. 17, 2003, Cody scribbled: "We have to make sure our commanders and soldiers are not at the end of this process but are engaged throughout the process." Toward that end, Votel and Hughes flew to Baghdad to secure a small compound at Camp Victory and to explain the task force to senior officers in Iraq.
The intent was to train troops to recognize and counter IEDs, Votel said, and to "build an architecture between the theater and Big Army" back in the States. IED incidents would be documented in detail at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and notably effective tactics and techniques would be disseminated to units preparing to deploy.
Eventually, Votel added, the effort would move "left of boom" by attacking bomber networks before devices could be placed and detonated. In the IED battle, the task force was to help "protect, predict, prevent, detect and neutralize" -- known as "tenets of assured mobility" -- which Votel borrowed as his conceptual framework from the Army Engineer School.
"Why are you bringing me a 7,000-mile screwdriver to fix this from D.C.?" asked one skeptical general in Baghdad. "Nothing good ever comes from Washington." Still, most commanders welcomed the assistance.
The first seven-man field team flew to Iraq on Dec. 12, 2003. Several others were to follow, including one sent to Afghanistan. Working initially with the 4th Infantry Division, and shuttling between bases in unarmored Chevy Suburbans, the team members in Iraq advocated infantry basics: "shoot, move, communicate, clear routes, don't set patterns." Troops were advised to watch for wires and triggermen away from the road, to be unpredictable, to use a "porcupine approach" in patrols and convoys, with all guns bristling and flank guards deployed.
By February 2004, the number of IED attacks in Iraq approached 100 a week. About half detonated, a proportion that would remain relatively constant for the next three years. The bleeding had hardly stopped, but to Central Command it seemed to have stabilized.
The casualty-per-blast ratio was dropping. Troops quickly learned counter-IED survival skills. Some bombers were arrested or killed. On good days the number of attacks dwindled to single digits, and U.S. bomb fatalities in February totaled nine, fewer than half the number in January.
"It looks to me like we're winning this thing," Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the Centcom deputy commander, told Abizaid at their forward headquarters in Qatar. "We're kicking ass."
Abizaid gave a thin smile. "Stand by," he said. "They're just plotting."
On March 28, 2004, U.S. troops shut down the incendiary newspaper of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric with a volatile following in the Baghdad slums. "All hell broke loose," a Centcom officer later noted. By late spring, IED attacks had nearly doubled, with bombers apparently drawn from the ranks of disaffected Shiites as well as Sunnis.
IEDs had become "the greatest casualty producer" in Iraq, Abizaid told Congress, surpassing RPG-7s, a rocket-propelled grenade. Insurgents increasingly promoted their deeds with videotapes released to al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets. Spectacular explosions of Abrams tanks and other "icon vehicles," as U.S. officers called high-value targets, soon filled airwaves and Web sites.
For Joe Votel and his task force in Washington, the IED fight had become a complex exercise in phenomenology. How did blast and shrapnel interact at close range? How did bomber cells thrive? Why did jammers seem to work in some areas and not others? The six- to eight-month time frame he foresaw for controlling IEDs would require an extension.
More than 500 mobile jammers had reached Iraq, but thousands more were needed. By late spring 2004, the task force had finally established a jammer strategy: get as many systems into theater as possible -- including Warlock Green, a sister device known as Warlock Red, and a Navy jammer called Cottonwood, which was removed from the Suburban in which it typically rode, installed in an armored vehicle and renamed Ironwood. Meanwhile, engineers would develop a single powerful variant that covered as much of the RC spectrum as possible.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a former paratrooper and Vietnam veteran from San Diego who chaired the House Armed Services Committee, watched the Army's response to IEDs with impatience. In February 2004, a committee memo to the service noted that "arsenals, depots, industry, and steel mills" were not at full capacity in making heavy plates for uparmored Humvees. House staffers visited the steel plants, extracting pledges to defer commercial work until almost 7,000 Humvee armor kits were finished in May, six months ahead of the Army's original schedule.
Hunter was particularly incensed to find skittish troops bolting thin steel and even plywood to military trucks traveling along Route Tampa and other hazardous Iraqi roads. In January, he had asked Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco to design an armored gun truck similar to those used in the Vietnam War, the sole surviving example of which he found in the Army's transportation museum at Fort Eustis, Va.
In March, a five-ton prototype, with steel and ballistic fiberglass protection added to the cab and truck bed, was shipped for testing to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
On June 4, Hunter appeared at the Pentagon's River Entrance with a freshly painted gun truck and placards, mounted on easels, listing its virtues. Cody and others from the top brass wandered out to kick the tires. No one wanted to buck the powerful chairman, but several paratroopers soon appeared to inform Hunter "how much they loved the Humvee better than these big things, how nice and small and agile it was," he later recalled.
Hunter was not dissuaded. Nearly 100 gun-truck kits would be sent to Iraq, at $40,000 each, and 18 to Afghanistan. Some soldiers sang the truck's praises, while others found it top-heavy and "something of a grenade basket," according to a senior commander in the 10th Mountain Division. Still, of more than 9,000 medium and heavy military transport trucks rolling through Iraq in late 2004, only about one in 10 had armor, according to GlobalSecurity.org. The convoys remained vulnerable.
A Vietnam-era relic would hardly solve the IED threat permanently. Several influential voices in Washington now questioned the Pentagon's approach. Retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the president of the Institute for Defense Analyses and a former U.S. commander in chief in the Pacific, complained to the joint staff about the lack of systematic, rigorous analysis of IED trends. "The Army is not dealing with the IED problem well, because it's not in their nature," Blair said. "They're used to taking off from the line of departure, capturing the enemy capital and having a victory parade."
Moreover, the emphasis on defeating the device, Blair added, was "like playing soccer and you're spending all your money and attention on the goalie's gloves. At that point, not only is this the last line of defense, but the ball is already in the air."
At Centcom, Smith also was frustrated by the lack of urgency. Four months after concluding that "we're winning this thing," he now had doubts about the national commitment to overcoming IEDs. "We have got to get at this thing in a different way than we're addressing it right now," he advised Abizaid in Qatar in June 2004. "We've got to have something like the Manhattan Project."
The allusion to the crash program that had built the atomic bomb in World War II -- an effort eventually employing 125,000 people and many of the nation's finest scientific minds -- appealed to Abizaid's imagination. Several days later he wrote a personal message to the Pentagon leadership asking for a "Manhattan Project-like" approach to IEDs.
"What the [expletive] does he think we're doing?" Cody snapped upon learning of the request. But the Centcom commander's plea could hardly be brushed aside. In a meeting with Cody and Votel, according to a participant in the session, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked whether the Army could meet Abizaid's request.
The Army believed it could, particularly if the service was made the executive agent for an expanded effort that involved the entire Defense Department. That meant getting the other services to relinquish money, personnel and bureaucratic control, an encroachment that quickly triggered alarms.
Meetings convened, exchanges grew stormy. The Navy and Marine Corps had pursued their own counter-IED programs, and the Air Force particularly resisted putting the Army in charge of a Pentagon-wide enterprise.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz believed change was necessary. Why, he had asked his staff, did it take so long for armor, jammers and other counter-IED materiel to reach Iraq and Afghanistan? "Where is all this stuff?" he complained. "When is it going to get to theater?"
The effort seemed fragmented and ad hoc -- "sucked into technology rabbit holes," as Votel put it. A survey by the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk that spring had found that at least 132 government agencies were now involved in IED issues, from the FBI and CIA to the National Security Agency and the National Ground Intelligence Center in Charlottesville, Va., according to an Army brigadier general.
The battle against IEDs exceeded the management capacity of a single service, Wolfowitz concluded. On July 12, 2004, he signed a one-paragraph order that transformed the Army task force into a joint task force. Votel would remain director, with cramped offices in the Army operations center. But he now reported to Wolfowitz rather than to Cody, and the task force would draw expertise from all services.x
Cody, who became the Army's four-star vice chief of staff in late June, accepted the decision graciously, even as he told one senior Army officer who now worked for Wolfowitz, "Don't forget where you came from."
Creation of the Joint IED Task Force would dramatically expand the U.S. effort. A $100 million budget in fiscal 2004 would mushroom to $1.3 billion in 2005. In subsequent meetings with industry executives and the national research laboratories, Wolfowitz declared that there was no higher priority.
Within the Defense Department, countering IEDs would be second only to exterminating Osama bin Laden.
"This is a major strategic effort," Wolfowitz told one group. "What can you put into it?"
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
Monday: The IED Blitz