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Tackling Afghan roadside bombs a new priority for US Army

November 15, 2009 21:27 IST

With 80 percent of US casualties in Afghanistan caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, the Pentagon is creating a department-wide task force to find ways to counter the menace.

"I have decided I need to focus my attention on this problem," Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

The challenges faced by the US troops in Afghanistan are different from those in Iraq, Gates said.

He said most of the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Iraq are based mainly on artillery shells and are triggered electronically. Those in Afghanistan are made primarily from fertilisers such as ammonium nitrate, with mines as detonators, the Washington Post quoted Gates as saying.

He also pointed out that Afghanistan's terrain is different, its road system is different -- streets running from paved to unpaved to nonexistent -- and the bomb builders' networks are structured differently than in Iraq.

Gates has recently expressed concern about whether the Pentagon groups working on the threat -- the Joint IED Defeat Organisation, the intelligence community and the commanders in the field -- are properly integrated and sufficiently flexible.

JIEDDO is the multibillion-dollar agency set up to lead and coordinate the defence department's efforts against roadside bombs.

Two weeks ago, however, the government accountability office criticised the agency for not having a database that includes both its own projects and those being carried out independently by the individual services.

To head the new task force, Gates has selected Ashton B. Carter, the undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics, and Lt Gen John M. "Jay" Paxton, the Joint Staff's director of operations.

Calling this one of his top priorities for the next six months, Gates said he would meet monthly with the group, the Post said.

Referring to a recent seizure in Afghanistan of a big cache of illegal ammonium nitrate, he said that the law has not been enforced up to now and that the goal is to get such substances under control.

He added, "If we have to pay for some of it, I'm open to that."

Gates also recommended looking back to the 1980s, when some of the Afghans who are fighting today as Taliban insurgents were, with the Central Investigation Agency's assistance, using similar IEDs against the invading Soviet Union.

"So let's go back and look at the playbook that they used against the Soviets to see if there's something that we could learn in terms of adapting our tactics, techniques and procedures," he said.

At a recent House of Representatives subcommittee hearing, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, director of JIEDDO, said, "The IED has now replaced direct-fire weapons as the enemy's weapon of choice."

Asked if Iran is supplying the Afghan insurgents, Metz said the US forces in Afghanistan have looked closely to see where such weapons have come from.

"Fortunately, we've seen only homemade platters with directional charges, none as sophisticated as ones we saw in Iraq," he said.

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