Fine Print

Fine Print: Military Putting High-Tech Resources in Afghanistan

A makeshift bomb is destroyed by U.S. Marines near Baqwa, Afghanistan.
A makeshift bomb is destroyed by U.S. Marines near Baqwa, Afghanistan. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Saturday at 9:45 p.m., an American unmanned aerial vehicle, complete with streaming-video equipment, circled over an area in Afghanistan's Khost province and transmitted photographs of three people, including one who was digging in a roadway, apparently to plant an improvised explosive device.

Information from computer data at a ground-based Counter-IED Operations Integration Center allowed intelligence specialists to "positively identify" the three as insurgents, and thereafter "coalition forces used a precision munition to eliminate the militants," according to a U.S. military news release. The drone aircraft saw one of the insurgents running from the explosion toward nearby trees and a second precision munition was used to kill him, the release said. The military's fuzzy video of the attack can be viewed at

Saturday's episode illustrates one result from what is becoming a major transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan of people, equipment and techniques of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). The makeshift bombs caused about 70 percent of the deaths and casualties among U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq, so the administration is putting additional assets to work to reduce that threat in Afghanistan.

The fiscal 2009 supplemental appropriations bill passed by Congress last week includes $1.1 billion to pay for the activities of JIEDDO, which has developed several devices to defeat improvised explosives. For example, electronic jamming devices such as Warlock are in play. Warlock uses low-power radio-frequency energy to block the signals of radio-controlled explosive detonators, such as cellphones, satellite phones and long-range cordless telephones. The supplement contains $355 million for additional Warlock devices. Other new instruments can look through the walls of metal, concrete or brick buildings and detect chemicals used for explosives.

A separate $4.5 billion in the supplemental bill is for the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle Fund, of which $1.9 billion is to go for a lightweight version of the MRAP, the heavily armored troop-carrying vehicle developed to provide improved protection against IEDs. The Afghanistan version, dubbed the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), is "urgently needed to protect service members against improvised explosive devices and other threats in Afghanistan," according to the congressional conference report on the bill.

Expanded operations in Afghanistan also have led the U.S. Army to seek the assistance of contractors in one of its most secret operations -- the intelligence fusion centers in the United States and Afghanistan that work to identify the insurgent networks that produce IEDs. The Army is specifically seeking people with the highest security clearances who have specialized in irregular-warfare analysis and have an understanding of "insurgent-based unconventional warfare," according to a June 11 work statement.

Making IEDs has become a multimillion-dollar business. Some networks in Iraq and Afghanistan that have gotten into the business can trace their origins back centuries, and are based on tribal and commercial links that traditionally have supported enterprise in other areas, such as smuggling and drugs. In Iraq, according to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, "small, highly skilled IED cells often hire themselves out to other insurgent groups, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq or the Sunni group Ansaar al Sunna."

Some have advertised on the Internet, others have produced DVDs that show U.S. vehicles exploding to gain customers, while many have contracted for specific jobs and remained anonymous.

The CRS report described an IED cell as having someone to provide the finances, a bombmaker, someone to place the bomb in a roadway or building and another person to press the trigger. Often there will be an additional person to stand guard while the work is being done. For the more enterprising group, there is a person to photograph or videotape the results for later promotional use.

The Army contract is looking for 42 Special Forces-trained individuals, 12 of whom will serve in forward operating bases in Afghanistan where they will "engage in systematic identification and analysis of insurgent cells and networks germane or in some way associated with employing or facilitating IEDs," according to the work statement. They will deal with data on network structures; terrorist techniques; and individuals with chemistry, explosives or electronics training, as well as others who support insurgent groups with money, safe houses or bank accounts.

The 30 assigned within the United States will work on "assessing of past terrorist trends and adaptations . . . factoring current adversary intent, constraints, capabilities and likely targets at an operational level."

The end product, according to the work statement, should be development of "notional concepts of operations and courses of action that best represent likely adversary activity."

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