July 16, 2012 by Think Defence
In a previous post on the Talisman route clearance system I made the point that ‘defeating the device’ was a single part of a more complex strategy including ‘defeating the network’.
The IED makers in Iraq had plenty of military explosives, artillery shells and mortar bombs to use so resorted to homemade explosives less often. n Afghanistan it is reported that homemade explosives are the norm, over 80%.
The most common form of homemade explosive is ammonium nitrate fuel (ANFO) that mixes ammonium nitrate fertilser with diesel to form a powerful explosive. Although illegal in Afghanistan it is still produced in quantity in Pakistan and smuggled across the border.
A recently published US GAO report highlights the scale of the problem.
This testimony discusses the collaborative efforts of U.S. agencies to detect and prevent the smuggling into Afghanistan of calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) fertilizer produced in Pakistan. Approximately 80 percent of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan contain homemade explosives, primarily CAN smuggled from Pakistan. These IEDs have been a major source of fatalities among U.S. troops in Afghanistan and have been used by various insurgent groups in Pakistan to kill thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of Pakistani security forces. U.S. officials recognize the threat posed by the smuggling of CAN and other IED precursors from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and various U.S. departments, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are assisting Pakistan’s government in countering this threat. This testimony is based on our May 2012 report on this issue.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD), CAN is produced in Pakistan at two factories. DOD estimates that about 240 tons of CAN—representing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the two factories’ total annual production capacity—is used by insurgents to make IEDs for use in Afghanistan. When processed and mixed with fuel oil, CAN fertilizer becomes a powerful homemade explosive. DOD officials noted that only a small amount of CAN is required to make powerful IEDs. According to DOD, a 110-pound bag of CAN yields about 82 pounds of bomb-ready explosive material. This small quantity has the capacity to destroy an armored vehicle or detonate 10 small blasts aimed at U.S. forces conducting foot patrols.
Afghanistan outlawed CAN in 2010, but because of demand for CAN as fertilizer and for IEDs, smugglers bring it into the country, for example, on trucks hidden under other goods. Afghanistan and Pakistan face challenges similar to those that the United States and Mexico face in trying to prevent smuggling across sections of our shared border. U.S. officials note that Pakistan maintains two primary border crossings along the approximately 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan, and only a small percentage of the trucks crossing the border are inspected. Our May 2012 report contains a video of activity at border crossings along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Click here to read the full report.
It should be obvious that cutting off the supply of ammonium nitrate fertiliser would have a significant effect on IED availability.
The report notes that only two factories in Pakistan produce the fertiliser and yet efforts to interdict the supply across the border are self evidently not working. Although Iran and China produce it and there are alternatives that the Taleban could easily switch to, the simple fact remains that two factories in Pakistan produce the majority of the precursor materials that produce the majority of coalition casualties.
Dropping a cruise missile onto these factories is not an option so there have been many initiatives to stop or reduce the flow.
Just because there are alternatives such as urea or potassium chlorate should not mean we give up on ammonium nitrate reduction.
This is a complex issue with no easy answers but in 2009 I wrote about Sulf-N-26, a non explosive fertiliser and again in 2011, it is an issue that has always puzzled me.
The reason I have been continually puzzled by this is because the west spend billions of pounds on aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan, would it not be cost effective to simply buy the licence to these non explosive fertilisers, set up a number of factories and subsidise production?
How much do we spend on development aid, counter IED equipment and medical care?
Am I being a little simple minded?
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