The Army general who commanded the war against homemade bombs that have killed and maimed thousands of Americans in Afghanistan has left the Pentagon knowing he scored a major victory.
In December, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero took off the gloves before a Senate panel and criticized a Pakistani fertilizer conglomerate for failing to cooperate in keeping its product from falling into the hands of Taliban makers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Gen. Barbero said Fatima had a change of heart around February. After refusing to talk with him, Fatima began discussions that led to several safeguards for its calcium ammonium nitrate, a much-used explosive ingredient for homemade IEDs.
“My assessment is, A.) they are sincere, and, B.) they have taken some actual steps to try to put some control on the free flow of this material,” said Gen. Barbero, who was honored at a mid-May retirement ceremony after leading the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization for more than two years.
A government source said some in the joint organization credit The Washington Times for the turnaround. On Jan. 27, The Times disclosed that Fatima's Midwest Fertilizer Corp. was capitalizing on $1.3 billion in tax-free bonds to build its first U.S. plant in Indiana at the same time it was refusing to help the armed forces reduce IED casualties.
Gen. Barbero attributed Fatima's about-face to several factors, including pressure from the public, a decision by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to freeze state support and the fact that Pakistanis have been victims of homemade bombs.
He listed major steps taken by Fatima:
• Tracking calcium ammonium nitrate by using clearly labeled yellow bags that contain lot numbers that are in a central database.
• Inspecting and educating distributor sites about the need to monitor buyers, and assuring that there are no “ghost” middlemen.
“They said they have closed down a number of them,” Gen. Barbero said. “We did some checking and found that they had taken some steps there.”
• Stopping sales in two border provinces — Baluchistan east of Kandahar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa east of Kabul — that are home to bomb-making networks, and recalling all calcium ammonium nitrate.
“Our commanders in Afghanistan said Chaman [Baluchistan] is the hub. That’s where they operate from,” the general said.
• Developing harder-to-detonate fertilizer made from calcium ammonium nitrate. Fatima is testing the product and has agreed to U.S. joint testing.
“I believe they are sincere and they believe they have produced this reformulation,” Gen. Barbero said.
• Joining the International Fertilizer Association’s product security plan, which opens Fatima to outside IFA auditing.
• Signing a military-to-military cooperation agreement May 6 that commits the U.S. and Pakistan to sharing information about IEDs. The draft sat unsigned for months.
One of Gen. Barbero’s last acts as director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization was to travel to Pakistan in May to sign the framework and assess Fatima's motives.
“There was a strategic decision that this is in our interest, Pakistan and we need to cooperate,” he concluded. “That’s my assessment, that they are sincere.”
Nadeem Hotiana, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy, said: “Fatima Fertilizer has been working overtime to address all the concerns, and all concerned are being kept briefed by the Fatima Fertilizer, including the U.S.”
About 80 percent of all IEDs in Afghanistan use homemade explosives as the main charge, of which 47 percent contain fertilizer with calcium ammonium nitrate and 45 percent another substance, potassium chlorate, according to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
“We have seen a reduction of the percentage of [calcium] ammonium nitrate that we’ve seized,” Gen. Barbero said. “The number of IEDs are down, but it is pretty anecdotal at this point.”
In Indiana, Gen. Barbero said, he spoke with the governor upon his return from Pakistan.
Mr. Pence still does not believe Fatima has gone far enough. Last month, he ordered the state not to be the conduit in the municipal bond market, where Fatima would pay a lower interest rate because bond proceeds are tax-free to the lender.
He said the Defense Department cannot guarantee that none of Fatima's fertilizer products will end up as bombs.
“Without assurances from our Defense Department that the materials which have been misused by the enemy in Afghanistan will be permanently removed from production by Fatima Group in Pakistan, I cannot in good conscience tell our soldiers and their families that this deal should move forward,” Mr. Pence said.
Officials in Posey County, Ind., disagree and still want the plant. Local news reports said the county plans to sponsor the bonds through its own economic development agency.