In a shift in tactics, the U.S. military in Afghanistan plans to rely more on old-fashioned surveillance, as compared with new-age technology, to stop the biggest killer of American service members in the field.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was informed by the Pentagon in recent weeks that the command is building up a special task force to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Task Force ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize) is designed to constantly watch troop and convoy routes to catch the enemy planting IEDs, which account for more than 50 percent of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan.
“I just found out they finally instituted ODIN in one province, Ghazni, in Regional Command East,” Mr. Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times. “IED attacks dropped by 70 percent. They have already killed 25 insurgents. That was after 20 days of being on line.”
The Pentagon has spent nearly $20 billion in a concerted effort since 2004 to blunt IEDs after they became prime weapons for insurgents in Iraq and then for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for Gen. Petraeus referred questions to the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, which coordinates all counter-IED work. A spokeswoman for the organization referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not respond to a reporter’s questions over several days.
However, a senior NATO officer in Afghanistan told The Times, “We have added substantial additional counter-IED platforms, optics, assets.”
Mr. Hunter, a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve, has pushed for months for the Pentagon to put more surveillance aircraft in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, analysts are debating whether the best counters to IEDs are high-tech jammers, lasers and detection devices - on which the Defense Department has spent billions of dollars - or on something simpler such as watching the roads where the bombs are embedded.
Mr. Hunter, who fought in Fallujah, said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, greatly relied on the task force during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, with dramatically improved results.
Mr. Hunter said Gen. Petraeus’ commanders “created an Army air unit that was able to do this outside [the defense secretary office’s] purview on the Army’s own so they didn’t have to go through any red tape. They killed more bad guys than the rest of the people in Iraq put together, and they were all IED emplacements.”
Mr. Hunter explained the philosophy:
“What they [found] out was you can create these lasers. You can try to see the wires. You can try to see under ground. You can have guys with metal detectors. You have rollers that you push in front of the [vehicles] to make sure those rollers can blow up first. … All of that is very expensive.
“The only effective way and only effective window to stop IEDs is when the guys are digging the hole for five hours on the main supply route to blow up our military folks. The only window is when they’re doing it,” he said.
This year, the House and Senate Armed Services committees wrote reports that questioned the Pentagon IED organization’s policies of relying heavily on electronics. Some in the Pentagon complained about too much unproven scientific work that never produced significant results.
Mr. Hunter said Pentagon officials are scouring the budget for the IED organization. “They’re going to cut waste, inefficiencies and duplicative processes,” he said. “That probably means contractors that are doing the same work.”
“What JIEDDO needs to do is focus their stuff on 24-hour surveillance,” he said. “The Space Age stuff is great. It’s expensive. It’s probably got a two- to three-year R&D period before it can even go into effect. The way to stop the IED that is foolproof is to just fly the roads with helicopters, fly with planes, fly with [drones].”
He added: “Right now, we know how to solve the problem - that is to put eyes on the road 24/7 and kill the guys. We don’t have to ask the CIA if there are women or children present. These are guys digging holes and placing explosives in it. We can attack them and not worry about civilian casualties. So that’s the way to stop these IEDs.”
Mr. Hunter said he wished the Pentagon, which is under a surge cap from the White House of 30,000 additional troops, would have started beefing up Task Force ODIN last spring as the buildup began.
“Their excuse for not having [this] stuff in Afghanistan - they said they haven’t had the infrastructure to put the [drones] in,” the first-term congressman said. “They haven’t had enough hangars. They haven’t had enough personnel. I said ‘baloney’ on that.
“They could have shipped that stuff in. What would have been great, if things were perfect, we could have said prior to the Afghan surge, we’re going to make sure we have Task Force ODIN in completely. And I think it was a big mistake they didn’t do it because we all know what the No. 1 killer is. It’s IEDs.”
Of the 909 NATO military personnel killed in 2009 and this year, 540 died from IED attacks, according to the monitoring group icasualties.org.
Mr. Hunter became so frustrated by the lack of the task force’s counter-IED assets in Afghanistan that he wrote to Gen. Petraeus as he took command in July.
“Regrettably, unlike Iraq, our forces in Afghanistan seem to lack a clear and coherent counter-IED strategy to combat this threat,” Mr. Hunter wrote. “We firmly believe that the lessons learned from Task Force ODIN in Iraq can be replicated in Afghanistan, dramatically reducing the rate of casualties due to IEDs. … Simply put, Task Force ODIN currently in place in Afghanistan is not the Task Force ODIN that was extremely successful in Iraq.”
Gen. Petraeus wrote back on July 13: “We are … significantly expanding the use of persistent surveillance systems.”
He also told Mr. Hunter, “Afghanistan is not Iraq and we have to be careful not to oversimplify the challenges here based on our experience in Iraq.”