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For Insurgents, IEDS a ‘Smart,’ But Indiscriminate, Weapon

July 30, 2010 at 6:07 PM EDT
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The deaths of six more U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan made for another record month of troop deaths and brought new attention on the dangers of roadside bombs known as IEDs. Ray Suarez speaks with Marine Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the IED challenges facing American troops in Afghanistan, we get the views of two veterans who have extensive experience dealing with them. Todd Bowers is a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves. He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan last year. He’s the deputy executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor was a brigade commander in Iraq and wrote a book about his experience, “Baghdad at Sunrise.” He served as executive officer to General Petraeus during the surge in 2007 and ’08. He now teaches military history at Ohio State University.

And, Peter Mansoor, in the recent news, you haven’t heard much about pitched battles with individual fighters. Has the IED become the weapon of choice for the Afghan insurgency?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, it is. It’s a smart weapon for the insurgents to use. They don’t have to put their troops at risk.

But it is also a fairly indiscriminate weapon, killing civilians and military forces alike. So, the enemy clearly is willing to use those kind of weapons and take the fallout as it occurs.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what makes it, as you say, smart? What makes it an attractive, useful weapon for them?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, again, they don’t have to put their troops at risk in using the devices. They don’t have to get into pitched battles with U.S. forces, which tend to go against the Taliban whenever they try that tactic.

Instead, they can plant these devices, put a pressure plate switch on it, which will detonate whenever a vehicle rolls over it, and then they can disappear into the hills and the villages.

RAY SUAREZ: Todd Bowers, does that level the technological field, when — when you are dealing with one of the best-equipped sets of armies in the world in NATO?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves: It does, but what it highlights as well is the importance of focus on the civilian populace.

These pressure plates have to be hooked up prior to driving over them, because the batteries don’t last that long. So, it requires the civilians or someone in that village to be there to connect these IEDs up beforehand. So, it’s not like a sort of set-it-and-forget-it mentality. It’s one that has some involvement that really requires the U.S. military to focus on the civilians to make them not want to connect those wires.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you are not just fighting against a weapon; you’re fighting against a whole system of relationships?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: You are.

And the other pieces that these IEDs, as was mentioned, are indiscriminate, killing many, many civilians. These are very good opportunities for us to be able to highlight how the Taliban is not focused on taking care of Afghanis, but more or less indiscriminately killing them, while targeting us.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Mansoor, in Iraq, as we mentioned, these weapons took a terrible toll on American forces. Over time, did we learn lessons in Iraq and the battle against IEDs that we can apply in Afghanistan?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, we did.

One of the primary lessons, which was just discussed, is that you have to attack the system as a whole, the network that emplaces the weapons. Putting more armor on vehicles, producing new vehicles, such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected trucks we now have, using countermeasures such as electronic jammers, those are all good devices, that’s good things to do to mitigate the damage to our troops, but they only protect at the point of attack.

What you want to do is roll back the network, because there’s someone who — who finances these devices. There’s someone who builds them. There is someone who emplaces them. There’s people that hooks up the hires. There’s other people that act as lookouts. And so there is a whole network that — behind these devices. And to roll that back, you have to get out among the populace and you have to secure the battle space.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah, but, Todd Bowers, when you try to peel the populace away from cooperation with the insurgents, can you protect them after that? Can the United States assure these people that, if they say no to the insurgents, that we will stand between them?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: And that’s the complexities of the environment in Afghanistan vs. Iraq.

Afghanistan is extremely rural. It’s extremely tribal. It’s extremely impoverished. And they are also set in their ways, the ways they have done these things in the past. It’s very difficult for them to hear from us that we are going to be there to secure them and take care of them.

But when we do, when we do stop in these villages and we protect them, we give them infrastructure, we show them that development will make their lives better, and that there is no need for the Taliban, that is when we accomplish our mission. But, again, it’s very difficult. And focusing on population centers is going to be key in advancing in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Mansoor, these IEDs have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan as well. Does that create an opening for the United States and its allies?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: It absolutely does.

And let me just give you some granularity to — to what we are talking about. Since the beginning of the year, nearly 400 Afghan civilians have been killed by roadside bombs and over 840 have been wounded. Two-thirds of the civilian casualties are created by roadside bombs which are laid by the Taliban.

And we can hang that figure around their neck like a millstone. And I’m sure that General Petraeus and his team will do that in the months ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Todd Bowers, you have direct experience with the use of these weapons. Do they change the way the U.S. forces go about their business on the ground?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: They do.

When we were there and realized that the IEDs were being spread out all over the place, we stopped using roadways and other tactics to just stay — steer clear of them. But, ultimately, the enemy is always advancing, and they are looking at our tactics and adapting to the way that we move.

That always teaches us something very critical: that they are watching, that they are always observing us, and that they are paying attention to these things that we are doing to try and counter what it is. They are emplacing IEDs in choke points. They are putting them in villages, any place they can.

It doesn’t make our lives easier, but it lets us know that they are an adaptable enemy that we have to be ready to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it get inside your head, too? I mean, does it do something more than just change the physical details of the day and where you go and where you don’t go, and make you wary enough to put you off your game or make you less effective in the mission?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: It does and it doesn’t. It does in the mind-set that you are thinking about it always. But we’re trained military, so we are going to go forward with our mission. But I do know at times that I could be shaking hands with someone that will be emplacing an IED as we get ready to leave that village.

And that’s the severity of that environment. It takes a tremendous toll on our men and women in uniform, knowing that there is no solidified dynamic in the way we should engage these people, that it’s always going to be fluid. But to make sure that we are on point, that we have effective training, and ultimately some tolerance to know that change will occur, that is going to move us forward greatly.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Mansoor, mixing those tactics, working with the civilian population, trying to take away allies of the insurgents, and the technical and technological countermeasures, taken as a whole, can you get the kind of reductions that you saw in Iraq from IED deaths in Afghanistan?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, you can over time.

And one of the things we haven’t put into the mix yet is, over time, it’s not U.S. forces that are going to provide the bulk of the population security to the Afghan people. It has to be Afghan forces. And, as they grow in numbers and quality, then you can actually hold the areas, rather than just clear them of enemy forces and patrol through them every now and then.

It’s going to take hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops, which are currently being trained. And, once they are on the ground, then you will see real advances in reducing the deaths caused and the injuries caused by roadside bombs.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that, Todd Bowers?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: I do agree with it. And I also really would like to highlight that it is going to take time.

Just seven months ago, where I was operating, we worked with Afghan national police and Iraq — I’m sorry — Afghani soldiers. There is a lot of work to be done. And it’s something that we have to instill in them, not just basic training and understanding how weapons work, but a pride in their country, a pride that they are a part of something large, because that was the largest issue that we were facing.

They knew how to fire the weapons. They knew how to patrol the streets, but they weren’t willing to die for it yet. And that is going to be the single hardest lesson to turn to — teach these troops as they develop.

RAY SUAREZ: Todd Bowers, Colonel Mansoor, gentlemen, thank you both.

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Thank you.

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: Thank you.