Foreign Affairs January/February 2006

Man Versus Mine

Iraqi insurgents have perfected the use of lethal explosives, with profound implications for our military operations in Iraq

Nearly a century ago, while serving as a British liaison officer to the Arab tribes during World War I, T. E. Lawrence developed many of the techniques of modern insurgent warfare. Lawrence's fluency in Arabic and profound understanding of Arab culture helped him invigorate the Arab Revolt of 1916—1918. His savvy military tactics helped ensure its success against the Turks.

In his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), Lawrence revealed his most effective tactic: "Mines were the best weapon yet discovered to make the regular working of their trains costly and uncertain for our Turkish enemy." If not for Lawrence's pioneering use of precisely placed explosives, the Arab Revolt might well have failed.

In Iraq the insurgents are using similar weapons against U.S. forces. Today they are called IEDs—for "improvised explosive devices"—rather than mines, and the insurgents are targeting automobiles rather than trains. But the effect is just as devastating.

The number of mines being used in Iraq, and the share of casualties for which they are responsible, dwarf anything ever before seen by the American military. During World War II three percent of U.S. combat deaths were caused by mines or booby traps. In Korea that figure was four percent. By 1967, during the Vietnam War, it was nine percent, and the Pentagon began experimenting with armored boots. From June to November of 2005, IEDs were responsible for 65 percent of American combat deaths and roughly half of all nonfatal injuries.

Mines, quite naturally, have evolved since Lawrence's day. Iraqi insurgents are armed with a surfeit of explosives and ordnance, ranging from TNT to artillery shells. In addition, they may be making bombs from some of the 380 tons of high explosives that vanished from an Iraqi bunker after the American invasion in March of 2003. The missing arsenal includes truckloads of HMX and RDX, military-grade explosives so powerful that they were monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency before the war. Detonation techniques are myriad. The insurgents have used pressure switches, infrared beams, cell phones, garage-door openers, and even garden hoses (which when run over by a vehicle send a stream of water into a small bottle, activating a detonator).

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The combination of highly juiced explosives and ingenious detonation technologies has opened up unending possibilities for low-risk offensives by the insurgency. Small but devastatingly lethal bombs can be disguised as cinder blocks, hidden inside dead animals, covered with roadside trash heaps, placed underneath bridges—in short, can lurk almost anywhere in Mesopotamia.

The Pentagon's counter-IED strategy is coordinated by the Joint IED Defeat Task Force, which was originally set up under the Army's jurisdiction in 2003. Until last month Joseph Votel, a one-star Army general, led the effort, but the Pentagon recently assigned command to a retired four-star general—a move Votel says he supports. The task force works with about eighty different contractors on roughly a hundred counter-IED initiatives. Last year the Department of Defense spent about $1.2 billion on those and other counter-IED efforts. This year it will spend about $3.5 billion. That sum does not include money spent adding armor to vehicles.

Presented by

Robert Bryce is the author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron and Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate.

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