Defense & National Security

Centralized Counter-IED Tactics In Afghanistan

A conservative Congressman who saw combat in the war on terror is ripping the Obama administration for the lack of a unified plan to stop the No.-1 killer of Americans in Afghanistan: the improvised explosive device.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, came out of a classified briefing at the Pentagon angry over the lack of leadership at the White House and in Kabul.

He told Human Events that there is still no single organization, or point man, in Afghanistan to coordinate counter-IED operations. As a result, field commanders implement varying types of techniques rather than the ones proven to work the best.

“There is no overall, overarching organization or person who’s in charge of going after the IEDs,” said Hunter, who was deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine infantry officer.

Hunter has taken the lead in Congress in urging the Obama administration to adopt a counter-IED strategy known as ODIN—observe, detect, identify, neutralize—in Afghanistan.

The Army set up the first ODIN task force in Iraq with great results. In theory, the strategy is simple: Observe the roads on which troops travel. When an insurgent is confirmed to be placing an IED, kill him. In Hunter’s experience, killing the implanter works better than all the electronic gizmos, such as jammers or ground radars.

In fact, the general who heads the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) told reporters recently that a sniffing dog and a trooper—not some expensive gadget—were the best ways to find a buried explosive. Critics say JIEDDO has spent billions on unproven high-tech gear, when persistent surveillance of roads—and dogs—work better.

The NATO force in Afghanistan has divided operations into regional commands. Right now, most of the counter-insurgency fighting takes place in RC-East, on the border with the Taliban haven of Pakistan; RC-South, the home of Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold; and RC-Southwest, which includes the heroin-trafficking province of Helmand.

Hunter said that while RC-East has set up an ODIN task force and has got good results, commanders in the south and southwest have not committed fully to such an operation, day and night.

“I’m convinced there is no ODIN in the south and southwest,” the congressman said, “except in name only.”

The White House, or Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander, needs to appoint a czar in that country to force commanders to adopt ODIN, he said.

“The only metric I can go by [is,] are we taking more or fewer casualties from IEDs,” Hunter said. “Because it isn’t a matter of how many assets we have over there, [or] how many hours a day do these assets fly. It’s the operational control and implementation of the assets to go after what I see as the biggest threat in this war, which is the IEDs.”

Hunter has become alarmed over the spike in IED casualties. NATO and Afghan forces have suffered a record 657 fatalities in 2010, 344 of them by IEDs.

“There’s no coherent organizational structure or anything else over there that takes everything that we have, that knows everything that we have available to the warfighter and implements a kind of stand-alone organization like task force ODIN was for the Army,” Hunter said. “ODIN was not just a thought process that was observe the enemy, detect, identif[y] them and then kill them. ODIN was an actual set of tactics, techniques and procedures that used varied assets whether people on the roads using scopes, driving the roads all the time, mixed in with UAVs [drones], mixed in with fixed-wing aircraft and then having shooters, or quick-reaction forces or Cobras or Apaches to go get after them and prosecute the enemy when we saw them doing bad things. That’s what ODIN was. That’s what’s been lost in translation in Afghanistan.”

When Hunter asked his Pentagon briefers from JIEDDO and U.S. Central Command why Afghanistan lacked an IED point man, they answered that they were powerless to make the change. It’s up to commanders in the field.

“There’s nobody in JEIDDO who can make anyone do anything,” the re-elected Congressman said. “They could come up with the silver bullet that fixes everything and they can’t make a single person use it if the ground commander doesn’t want to. “
Hunter, a Marine officer in the Reserves, has a passion for the IED issue. Last summer he became concerned that the Afghani troop surge was lacking a comprehensive approach to the deadly homemade bombs.

He wrote to Gen. Petraeus on July 1, saying, “Regrettably, unlike Iraq, our forces in Afghanistan seem to lack a clear and coherent counter-IED strategy to combat this threat … . We firmly believe that the lessons learned from Task Force ODIN in Iraq can be replicated in Afghanistan, dramatically reducing casualties due to IEDs.”

Petraeus wrote back July 13, giving Hunter no firm commitment and chiding him a bit for trying to replicate Iraq operations in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is not Iraq,” the four-star general said, “and we have to be careful not to oversimplify the challenges here based on our experience in Iraq.”

Petraeus added a handwritten paragraph that the Pentagon had just approved “$3 B worth of C-IED equipment into Afghanistan, as well.”

Nearly six months later, Hunter is still waiting for a comprehensive approach, as more troops die or are severely wounded by
IEDs.

“They have a lot on their plates, I would guess,” he said of Obama, Petraeus, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

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