Of Bomb Counts and Chickens

The U.S. military is belatedly realizing that the real battle being fought in Afghanistan is not just for hearts and minds

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In one of many fawning interviews at the end of his year-long tenure as ISAF commander, General David Petraeus (now the director of the CIA) made an extraordinary claim:

Yet the general said signs of progress were beginning to appear. Insurgent attacks were down in May and June compared with the same months in 2010, and July is showing the same trend, he said.

"This just means that they have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat," he said of the insurgents. "This is the first real indicator -- for the first time since 2006 -- compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower."

It was a claim difficult to square with reality, as a new report at the National Journal suggests. "The number of IED attacks in Afghanistan has spiked to all-time high," Yochi Dreazen quotes U.S. military officials saying, "because of the free flow of critical bomb-making materials from neighboring Pakistan."

This, too, is difficult to square with reality. Further investigation of Petraeus' remarks indicated he did not include IEDs in his estimate of violence—that is, he chose not to count the most common form of violence so that he could claim violence has been reduced. It was a pretty shocking piece of dishonesty. However, blaming the rise of IEDs on bomb components (fertilizer, wires, radios, and so on) also makes very little sense.

One of the fundamental challenges the U.S. military has never really figured out is what to do about IEDs. They've built bigger trucks, designed robot blimps, and bulldozed entire villages to deal with the homemade bombs. The race against IEDs is, in a way, an arms race—one where the defensive party (that's us!) has all of the disadvantages.

But IEDs are more than their constituent components. Right now, many IEDs are triggered by timers or even pressure plates that were buried in the road. This is because the U.S. military blankets areas with radio scramblers to prevent remote detonation. They can detect signal lasers and physical cables leading off the road to a detonator. For each measure the U.S. adopts to one-up the IEDs, the insurgents create new workarounds that are harder and harder to defeat.

At its heart, however, the scourge of IEDs is not a technological problem. We can safely assume the arms race of measure and counter-measure will continue for a long time at huge cost. The real problem of IEDs is a political and strategic one. Much like with suicide bombing, insurgents use IEDs because they are effective: they're hard to defeat, they cause a lot of damage if not a lot of death, and the psychological toll they exact on the counterinsurgents is extreme.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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