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Taliban Bombs Hit New High — 1,500 in November Alone

December 12, 2010

The bad news first: Insurgents in Afghanistan have constructed more homemade bombs in the past six months than at any time during the nine-year war. But those bombs are killing and injuring fewer U.S. and allied forces. Most attempts at blowing up U.S. troops just fail.

According to new figures provided to Danger Room by the Pentagon’s task force known as JIEDDO (Joint IED Defeat Organization) that works to defeat improvised explosive devices, the Taliban and its allies built 1,507 homemade bombs in November 2010, an all-time high. That’s nearly 100 more than the 1,415 they made the previous month — the reigning IED record in Afghanistan.


July, August and September all had monthly bomb totals of between 1,374 and 1,391; all of which were higher than June’s 1,314. And their geographic distribution follows the pattern of violence in the war: 75 percent of them occurred in the southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar where most of the surge troops are. The surge clearly hasn’t been able to stop the growth in the bomb rate.

But JIEDDO considers those figures to conceal a greater success. Most of the bombs didn’t do any damage. November’s high-water mark killed 24 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops and wounded 301 others. But in June, when there were almost 200 fewer bombings, 52 troops died and 297 were wounded.

That’s a pattern that largely held through the summer: a fairly steady uptick in incidents, but with a relatively low rate in those killed and injured. JIEDDO calculates the improvised-bomb success rate — in which a homemade bomb hurts someone — in November at 17 percent. (Some homemade bombs kill or wound more than one person, so it’s not a simple matter of tallying the killed and wounded figures and dividing by the number of bombs.) In June, that success rate was 21 percent, and from July to September, it ticked up to 24 or 25 percent before dipping back to 21 percent in October.

It’s way too early to claim that November’s dip below the 20-percent effectiveness mark is a new trend. JIEDDO claims that the death rate from jury-rigged bombs has fallen since January, but the figures provided to Danger Room just go back to June. We’ve requested fuller totals — JIEDDO was kind enough to pass along additional data, but that data didn’t include Afghan casualty figures, so an apples-to-apples measurement over time is still elusive. As soon as I get more information, I’ll update this post.

But JIEDDO attributes the recent drop in effectiveness to increased early-detection measures. “We’ve seen really no significant change in the type of explosives being used,” JIEDDO’s outgoing director, Lieutenant General Michael Oates, told the Foreign Press Center in Washington on Monday.

The steady state of the bombs — mostly made from chemicals found in fertilizers with very little metals — has allowed new bomb-sniffers to get up to speed, including blimps, drones and even bomb-sniffing dogs.

Dogs’ noses are well-honed by evolution, but other counter-bomb technologies required more rapid development.

A top intelligence unit in Afghanistan, known as Task Force ODIN-A, developed a sensor that it stuck onto the bottom of a King Air turboprop plane to hunt the chemical signature of fertilizer-based bombs from the skies.

Another, older solution used in Afghanistan is the Husky Mounted Detection System, a vehicle hooked up with ground-penetrating radar detectors, capable of finding “shallow buried metallic and non-metallic threats,” as JIEDDO spokeswoman Irene Smith puts it.

And drones capable of staying aloft for up to 20 hours at a time capture full-motion video of insurgents planting bombs, so ground units and bomb squads can take out both.

Here’s the latest JIEDDO data:

In the next few months, Oates will leave JIEDDO, to be replaced by Lieutenant General Michael Barbero. Although he won’t be a field commander, he’ll have much responsibility for expanding the recent trend of ineffective improvised explosives. It’s a heavy burden — especially since the last six months’ worth of data show that little is stopping the insurgents’ rising ability to build the cheap, deadly bombs.

 

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