Home / DoD / Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates of JIEDDO: Leading the Fight Against IEDs

Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates of JIEDDO: Leading the Fight Against IEDs

Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani has a reputation as one of the deadliest Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, and according to Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates, he is “living up to his reputation.”

ied_training_kit___1_ezr2He’s responsible for at least one assassination attempt against Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, and the deadly Camp  Chapman Attack on December 30, 2009, the deadliest attack against CIA operatives in over 25 years.

Haqqani is based in the North Waziristan province of Pakistan, operates mostly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and is bent on dominating Afghanistan.  His improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are typical of the Afghan theater: they’re mostly “victim-operated” (i.e. trip-wire or pressure plate mines) and largely homemade from fertilizers like potassium chlorate.

The threat from Taliban commanders like Haqqani is emblematic of the differences between IED deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.  “In Iraq, we saw the proliferation of military-grade munitions as the primary explosive, particularly supplied by other countries.  Quality and type of IEDs is different in Afghanistan, they’re generally homemade from potassium chlorate and ammonium nitrate.”

This presents a technological challenge to IED detection: while military munitions can be rooted out with metal detectors, low-metallic or nonmetallic IEDs made from fertilizer generally cannot.  However, new technologies from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) are helping to solve that problem.

First, persistent surveillance of Afghanistan’s roads is helping to mitigate the enemy’s advantage of surprise.  Persistent surveillance programs like the Air Force’s Task Force Liberty, the Army’s Task Force Odin and small, leave-behind monitoring devices that are part of the Army’s Increment 1 brigade modernization program, detect physical disruption to the ground and things changed in the environment.

While the technology isn’t fully mature yet, Gen. Oates says it is improving, “I believe that the change detection technology we are going to insert into Afghanistan is going to pay dividends.”  Gen. Oates called persistent surveillance “the most important up-front technology” in defeating IEDs.

Lt. Gen. Michael Oates
Lt. Gen. Michael Oates

Other measures to fight IEDs in Afghanistan range from the conventional, like adding rollers to the front of armored vehicles to trigger pressure plates and trip wires, to the imaginative, applying social science and database analysis to determine who is placing IEDs.

Social network analysis is one tactic that is being applied to Afghanistan after promising results in Iraq.  Gen. Oates said,  “We had a bright young person…working with our databases…that was able to determine the physical locations of the tribes within Iraq.  Knowing which tribes are physically within a commander’s battlespace enables them to determine who the power players are within his space.  I am very optimistic that we will get a great ROI on these technologies.”

The biggest challenge to the social networking efforts is cultural understanding.  Gen. Oates said that understanding dynamics like language, which ranges from Pashto to Arabic and many other dialects, and complex foreign tribal and family networks are difficult for US analysts.  “Getting to the level of sophistication to understand who controls what in the society is very difficult,” he said, our efforts are hampered by “cultural ignorance.”

The combination of social network analysis and persistent surveillance is helping to shift counter-IED strategy in Afghanistan from an “intelligence-based” model one that is “warrant-based” or evidence-based.  That shift is required in order for the rule of law to take hold, according to Gen. Oates.

Also, improving surveillance technology and analyzing social networks also helps to reduce civilian casualties, an essential part of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen’s three principles for the use of military force.  Admiral Mullen wrote, “Each time we kill a civilian inadvertently, we not only wreak devastation on the lives of their loved ones, we set our own strategy back months if not years. We make it hard for people to trust us. Frankly, the battlefield isn’t necessarily a field anymore but the minds of the people.”

Defeating IEDs in an targeted manner while minimizing civilian casualties and cooperating with international partners is an essential part of winning the war in Afghanistan, and JIEDDO’s efforts span all parts of defeating IEDs as a weapons system.

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