Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The winning percentage

Some of the brightest military minds in the western world are discussing the problem of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s). Those Canadians involved at the pointy end defeating those IED’s in Afghanistan are a contributing part of that discussion, but for operational security reasons, the lessons learned have been kept from public sight.

I understand the OPSEC concerns: if the insurgents know how we detect and defeat their bombs, they’ll change their methods and procedures, and we’ll have to figure it out all over again. They’re already adaptive enough, without giving them more hints.

But as I’ve argued before, the Taliban can’t win this conflict on the ground. The only way they can win is to get the international community to give up. And while IED’s aren’t a particularly effective military weapon – at least, not in the numbers they can plant here in Kandahar – they’re an extremely effective IO weapon, sapping the will of the Canadian public to support the mission.

To be brutally honest, we’ve been losing the fight for the hearts and minds of Canadians, largely because we’re surrendering the mental and emotional battle to the bad guys.

Think about it. Every time they get an IED victory, it’s splashed all over our news from the moment the casualty is announced at KAF, to the ramp ceremony, to the repatriation ceremony at Trenton, to interviews with friends, colleagues, and family. Canadians feel each death keenly, because we’ve come to value life so much more since the last time we were involved in a prolonged military conflict. We use the event of the hundredth death to reflect on the mission, on the human cost of it. Each time the Taliban gets lucky with an IED, the ripple effects on public opinion in Canada are huge.

But when our side wins, when we find an IED and defeat it, we clam up about it because of OPSEC concerns. So the image the public gets is a skewed one: they’re blowing our boys and girls up with impunity, and we can’t seem to do anything about it. That's why I’ve been trying to convince people in uniform for years that while we certainly need to respect OPSEC issues, we also need to strike a better balance in terms of informing the Canadian public about our own victories as well, so that they have some context when the Taliban gets one of their very few IED victories.

Today, for the first time, I was given a briefing here at the Canadian HQ at Kandahar Air Field that began to deal with that issue when Capt Roy Ulrich, the 2IC (second in command) of the Task Force Kandahar Counter IED (C-IED) Squadron here gave us some first-hand insight into this secretive ongoing battle.

Countering the IED threat starts with intelligence. Where are the bomb-builders and those who plant them? Where are the detonators, switches, and explosives they use to produce the IED’s? Where are the devices planted? Very little surrounding that intelligence can be revealed to the public, and for good reason.

But it’s no secret that one of the best solutions to the intelligence challenge is the local population. IED’s are an indiscriminate weapon, and according to the CF, half of those killed in Kandahar province last year were Afghan civilians blown up by insurgent IED’s. So the Afghans are motivated to help the ISAF forces, on this issue at the very least.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are highly motivated to deal with this threat as well: many, many more of them are killed and injured by insurgent bombs than Canadians are. So Canadians have been training them to find and defeat these horrific weapons themselves.

Capt Ulrich told us that the local ANSF are now responsible for finding 65% of all reported IED’s in Kandahar province, an incredible statistic, given the fact that their most technologically advanced detection tool is likely the Mark 1-A1 Eyeball.

Of course, that stat still leaves a good deal to keep ISAF forces, and specifically the Canadians pretty damned busy. The briefing stated that disruption of IED networks took a multi-pronged approach:

  • Neutralize the IED network and leadership

  • Dismantle IED assembly factories

  • Interdict component supply lines

  • Seize key components

Our guys and gals have had some big successes lately on this front. Sometimes they “neutralize” the IED at the point of attack, like they did in the failed attack pictured below.

Capt Ulrich was far too professional to gloat over it, but I’ll tell you flat out I wasn’t sorry in the least to know that that VBIED was “neutralized” when the driver found out attacking Canadian soldiers is generally extremely detrimental to one’s continuing good health. In this case, the enemy was intent on going to hell anyhow, as the vehicle contained about 1300 lbs of military explosive in the form of aircraft bombs of Russian design. That would have made an awfully big bang.

And that’s not the only success Canadians have had recently. On January 7th of this year:

The most recent operation in the Khakrez and Shah Wali Khot districts resulted in the seizure of a significant insurgent cache that contained large quantities of explosives, pressure switches, and well over 100 commercially manufactured detonators.

The “commercially manufactured detonators” phrase is significant. Detonators are the most unstable and dangerous element in an IED, and the homemade ones apparently ruin the day of those making and handling them on a regular basis. So the Taliban really, really prefer to use much more reliable commercial products, which are harder to obtain. When we deny these key components to them, we put a big dent in their plans.

Unfortunately, even with these largely unpublicized victories, we still lose soldiers to enemy IED’s. We all know that.

But here’s what we as Canadians don’t already know: that the Taliban victories plastered all over our media, and imprinted upon the national consciousness in 2008 represented less than 4% of the total IED incidents in Kandahar province during that time. And that percentage has nearly halved from the year before, when it was 7%.

From the graphic above, it’s obvious why we’ve been taking increased IED casualties - it’s the sheer number of IED attempts, not our inability to counter them. I asked the Captain about this increase in IED attempts, and here’s what he said:

The reason the insurgents are turning to this strategy is that it’s the only one available to them.

Our group spoke with BGen Thompson, the Commander of Task Force Afghanistan, later in the day, and he addressed this issue in more detail than the Captain could. The general said that the insurgent tactics like intimidation of the local population and indiscriminate IED use that hurts the local population aren’t “consent-building tactics” that historically win the day in an insurgency.

Furthermore, they’re tactics best countered in the long run by more policing. Task Force Afghanistan believes Kandahar province requires 4,000 trained police in order to achieve an acceptable security standard. We currently have close to that number of police on the payroll in the province, but only 1,000 of them have been fully trained. As the general stated:

That process needs to be accelerated in order to build Afghans’ confidence in their own security.

Too true, and Canadians – both civilian and military – are working on doing just that. More IED's killing Afghan civilians means more support for the coalition and ANSF efforts. More trained and competent ANSF and coalition troops on the ground means more success countering that threat. And as the Americans plan to put more troops into the province and we continue to train up the ANP and ANA, both those points are being addressed. The Taliban has a plan - that's obvious. But we have a plan too, and ours has the better chance for success in the long run.

IED’s continue to be the single greatest threat to Canadian life in Kandahar, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But the story the Canadian public has seen to this point is not the full picture.

Spread this story, and help make sure they do now.

* * * * *

Your contribution helps make this trip possible:


Blogger Unknown said...


Great post, it provided much needed perspective.

I don't know whose idea it was to send you over there, but that guy is a frickin' genius.

By the way, I'll be hitting your tip jar with a modest donation once I'm satisfied that your posts are worthy of some financial remuneration...You're almost there, keep up the good work.

Apart from missing the family and having an employer that needs you back behind a desk, I'm betting you'll find it tough to leave the "Big Suck". That dust has a way of getting under your skin.

I will say this to all of your readers: Damian's trip is a first for the CF and they will be evaluating its effectiveness. This need not be a one-time shot, if the blogoshpere proves itself worthy of this kind of access. So the more you express support by donating, the more other bloggers link to these posts and expand on them, the more discussion Damian's trip generates all leads to the increased liklihood that this will happen again to Damian, or another appropriate blogger.

Yeh, yeh, I know I just infuriated a couple of hundred of you who take offense to the blogosphere needing to prove itself idea. Well, I have news for you digitally savvy bloggers, most general officers in the CF don't know what a blog is. Think about the opportunity to demonstrate some value to the so very senior, but late adopters in the Canadian military.

Blogoshere, the world (well, OK, maybe just the CF) is watching, Damian is doing his part, will you do yours?

6:00 p.m., January 20, 2009  
Blogger Osumashi Kinyobe said...

Good luck while there.
It is true, every loss weakens our resolve, and the IEDS are numerous. We can't, however, let the bad guys win.

6:14 p.m., January 20, 2009  

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