Iraq: Can American Military Stop Deadly IEDs?

It's bad enough when the insurgents hide the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in animal carcasses or, more ghoulishly, human cadavers. Worse is when they leave the bombs sitting in plain sight. "It makes the hair on the back of our necks tingle," says Command Master Chief Pat McLean, the senior enlisted man in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Mobile Unit 2 battalion in northern Iraq, the specialists who disarm bombs—and who lost three men to exploding IEDs in July. Insurgents sometimes want the Americans to find the IEDs—so they can draw them into an ambush.

The Iraqis are getting cleverer as the Americans try to shield U.S. troops with more and more armor. In a recent incident, insurgents used a small IED to blow out the tires of one vehicle. When the passengers scrambled out to transfer to another vehicle, a larger IED detonated, killing two. "Sadly, it seems that we're the ones lagging behind. They're getting better and better at it," says Robert Lamburne, the director of forensic services at the British Embassy in Baghdad. The Brits and the Americans now have fancy forensic facilities, like the CSI labs on TV, to trace bombmakers. But Lamburne, who has inspected hundreds of devices, notes that the insurgents don't try all that hard to cover their tracks. About one in five leaves behind fingerprints. "It's not ignorance," he says. "They just don't care. They may believe they're going to die fighting anyway."

How do you defeat a foe who can destroy million-dollar machines with devices that can be built off the Internet for about the cost of a pizza, especially if that foe doesn't particularly worry about dying? When the insurgency began, there were about five "master bombmakers" in Baghdad, each with a recognizable style. Their model was the roadside bombs that were used in Lebanon almost 20 years earlier by the Iranian-backed group Hizbullah. Primitive versions used rudimentary triggers—sometimes just a car battery and a long wire. Today's IED makers have inexpensive gadgets like garage-door openers and disposable phones to detonate their bombs.

The insurgents in Iraq have perfected a new way of war. America is still the world's greatest superpower, and the U.S. military's capacity to take out a moving vehicle using a drone piloted from half the world away should still provoke a little shock and awe. But the IED—cheap, easy to make and adapt, and deadly—has in its own way proved equally powerful. The bombs have bled the U.S. military in Iraq. And thanks to the ubiquitous videos of IED attacks shot by insurgents and put up on YouTube, they will be credited with driving us out of the country whenever we do leave. Guerrillas, even armies, elsewhere are watching: most of the world's conventional militaries would be vulnerable to similar tactics. Already, locally made devices have begun appearing on battlefields from Somalia to Thailand to Pakistan.

The U.S. military hasn't told the public exactly how many soldiers and Marines are killed and injured by IEDs every month in Iraq. Such disclosures would aid the enemy, or so goes the official explanation, though it might also embarrass Pentagon officials who say they have spent at least $6 billion so far trying to defeat IEDs, with limited success. The best estimate is that about one in three soldiers lost in 2004 was killed by an IED. Now it's more like four out of five. About 50 soldiers a month are killed or injured by IEDs, up from about 30 a year ago. Success, such as it is, is measured this way: the insurgents are setting off more and more IEDs every month—perhaps twice as many as last year. The American death toll is not rising as fast. Officials claim that about eight out of nine IED casualties are injured, not killed, which is a consolation of sorts, though not much of one to the maimed and brain-damaged.

The Americans are caught on the wrong end of what military experts call the "offense-defense spiral." In the race to kill better, offense usually stays a step ahead of defense. IEDs are easy to make, and bombmakers don't have to look very hard for ingredients. The highly militarized regime of Saddam Hussein stashed weaponry all across the country. When Saddam fell and the American invaders failed to secure his arsenals, insurgents could and did avail themselves of about 500 million tons of bombs, artillery shells and ammo, basically left lying around. When the Marines finally seized control of Fallujah in 2004, they discovered that munitions were stockpiled everywhere. The insurgents were transporting IEDs around town in an ice-cream truck. The supply of IEDs and the men to deliver them has become so plentiful that there has been a decline of what is known in the narcotics trade as "street value." In 2005, the teams emplacing IEDs were being paid $100 for each successful blast. Now in central Iraq the payoff is sometimes as low as $40.

About two years ago, Americans, especially the ones fighting against Shiite insurgents, began seeing the deadly effects of a new, improved IED, a charge that could blast right through an armored vehicle, even a tank. These explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) are shot out of crude cannons shaped roughly like coffee cans. Making an EFP requires expertise and machine tools, and earlier this year the Americans claimed the devices originated in Iran. According to the military, EFPs accounted for a third of American combat deaths in July.

The U.S. military responded to the IED threat slowly and defensively. More than a year into the insurgency, the unit set up to figure out how to counter IEDs was operating out of what one veteran of the early days called a "converted closet" in the Pentagon. Now the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), formed in 2006, has a staff of 400 and a budget this year of $4.5 billion. For the first several years, the defensive effort focused largely on building better jammers. None works very well. It is difficult to sort out a single tiny signal in the electronic clutter of an urban environment. For a time, American soldiers were turning off their jammers because they jammed their own communications.

The other defense is more and better armor. For several years, a dispiriting squabble spluttered in Washington over the failure of the military to provide its troops with enough armored vehicles. The Army brass seemed to forlornly hope that the Iraq War was an unfortunate mistake that would never be repeated (shades of Vietnam), so they saw no point in wasting scarce resources on buying vast armored fleets that would never again be deployed. The Army's foot-dragging finally stopped after a briefing for Defense Secretary Robert Gates on May 1. Unlike the Army, the Marines had ordered a disproportionate number of odd-looking vehicles called MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), which have a V-shaped chassis to deflect explosions. According to a source who was present but would not be identified discussing a top-level meeting, Gates turned to one Army commander and inquired: "Tell me, general, what is the difference between a Marine's blood and a soldier's?"

The U.S. military will now be re-equipped with armored vehicles at the cost of billions. The armored-vehicle shortfall has attracted a great deal of attention in the press and in Congress, but it misses the larger point, says JIEDDO chief Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who was brought out of retirement to be the overall commander in the war against roadside bombs. As Meigs acknowledged to NEWSWEEK, defense is not really the answer because, again, the insurgents can always build bigger IEDs. The better approach, says Meigs—and he does not pretend that it is a sure or perfect answer—is to go on offense.

One step is to get soldiers out of the vehicles that have too often become their fiery coffins. "What does barreling down a highway at 45mph, peering through a dust-covered windshield, actually accomplish?" asked a retired general who declined to be quoted by name criticizing his former military colleagues. A veteran of the Balkans, this general recalled that his troops had a term for routine, pointless patrols. "Dabbing," they called it, from the caustic acronym for "driving around Bosnia." "'Dabbing' now means 'driving around Baghdad'," says the general. Before he became head of Coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus wrote the Army's new manual on counterinsurgency. For his forces in Iraq, he boiled it down to a series of instructions. Instruction No. 4: "Get out and walk."

Everyone—from the Americans to the British to the Israelis, with their long experience in Lebanon—seems to agree that better intelligence is essential to reducing the IED problem to a mere "nuisance" (Meigs's goal). But good intelligence is hard to come by. Instead, the Americans have resorted to operations like sending out convoys as bait—while drone aircraft loiter overhead to track the bombers, and signals-intelligence teams listen for their communications—followed by a larger force to spring a trap on the attackers. If that tactic sounds a little desperate, a senior military official, speaking anonymously about a sensitive subject, assured NEWSWEEK that such convoys use volunteer crews and very-well-armored vehicles.

The success of the insurgent tactics employed in Iraq seems to guarantee we will see them again elsewhere. In the dry jargon of military thinkers, guerrilla fighting is called "asymmetrical warfare." The asymmetries are not just physical or technological, but moral. Martin Van Creveld, a well-respected historian at Hebrew University, puts the proposition starkly: because occupying powers are automatically cast as the bully, they have to show restraint in the battle for world opinion. "You cannot be both strong and morally right at the same time," says Van Creveld. "But if you are small and weak, then you can do what-ever you want. Necessity does not have any moral bounds."