When the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan broke out, the US Military did not have a name yet for the weapon that came to shape these conflicts like no other. After 15 years and thousands of service members, law enforcement officials and civilians killed and injured, improvised explosive devices remain the weapon of choice for insurgents, terrorists and irregular forces around the world, primarily due to their easy availability, low cost and persistently devastating impact. Considering the experience of Western militaries during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ongoing fight against ISIS encourages a closer look at the role of IEDs in counterinsurgency campaigns.
During the peak of its reign, ISIS successfully established IED production capabilities on an industrial scale, incorporating high degrees of standardisation and a complex supply chain as well as sophisticated research and development facilities. Chemical precursors, detonators and mobile phones originating in countries as diverse as Brazil, India and China were usually imported via Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, processed through assembly lines in Iraq or Syria and deployed by frontline fighters, up-armoured vehicles or UAVs. This logistical structure further enabled the group to hide thousands of the devices in the cities and regions it was abandoning under the pressure of advancing Kurdish and Iraqi forces, continuously causing casualties among those units and preventing the previously displaced population from returning until a lengthy and thorough sweep has deemed their homes safe again. The threat of ISIS remains long after the organisation has been repelled.
However, even on a more limited scale, IEDs offer significant advantages to anybody who employs them, particularly in confrontations with Western forces. On a tactical level, they tilt the chances of every engagement in favour of the opposition forces, as the worst outcome could be the neutralisation of the device. In contrast to firefights or grenade attacks, there is no possibility for the attacked unit to gain the initiative and achieve a battlefield victory. This asymmetry mitigates any superiority in resources, technology and firepower, offering the chance to disable a US$900,000 vehicle with a US$200 device. On a strategic level, the IED threat confines security forces to fortified outposts or heavily armoured vehicles, limiting their freedom of movement, the opportunities to engage with the population and the chances of maintaining stability and security. Successful attacks causing mass casualties among civilians undermine the credibility of the local government and its capabilities to provide a safe environment while every service member killed or wounded on deployment exponentially increases the political pressure on allied governments. Thereby, the potential effects of every IED far outlast the immediate detonation.
Eradicating the legacy of ISIS reveals another intricate issue in counter IED. Despite accumulating a wealth of knowledge and lessons-learned, disseminated through close international cooperation in training and doctrine, as well as the benefit of state-of-the-art technologies, even Western armed forces require substantial time and resources for the training and deployment of personnel that is suitable and qualified to identify and disarm the wide array of devices they might encounter on the battlefield. In Iraq, the multinational coalition against ISIS established a training course to pass on at least the most essential skills for this task to the units and militias that are directly engaged in combat operations and that bear the brunt of IED incidents. In contrast, the constellation of partners on the ground is much more complex in Syria. This has caused a more cautious approach to knowledge transfers, as a counter-IED training implicitly offers invaluable insights into how IEDs are successfully assembled and how standard operating procedures of EOD technicians could be counteracted.
The most significant and sustainable success in suppressing IED attacks came in areas that saw a long-term implementation of a comprehensive, population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. Evidence from Afghanistan underlines the importance of winning popular support in an area of operations, separating the people from the influence of the insurgents and convincing them to cooperate with the government. Accumulated biometrical data in combination with the results of detailed post-blast analyses and the persistent presence of security forces led to a significant decrease in IED incidents. As suggested by a recent surge in IED related casualties in Afghanistan, however, this success can be easily reversed when security forces are withdrawn and insurgents resort to IEDs for reclaiming visibility and influence. This offers a cautious message to Iraq, where ISIS is assumed to reverse into a clandestine movement after having lost most of the territory it once controlled. Reacting to the grievances of the Sunni population should be a cornerstone of the strategy to protect Iraq from future IED attacks.
Since the recognition of IEDs as a distinct weapon, the response to the threat spawned a broad network of institutions, organisations and commands while making the Allied Command Transformation at NATO, the European Defence Agency and the European External Action Service of the EU, and Interpol dedicate subdivisions or departments to this issue. A complex strategy promises that defeating the devices, preparing the forces and attacking the networks responsible for their deployment will ultimately mitigate the dangers. Several hundred million dollars in research funding and a multibillion dollar industry created tools and technologies to target every vulnerability that IEDs could exploit, engaging in an eternal arms race with their opponents. Without doubt, the technological and tactical progress of the recent years saved countless lives and limbs. The rate at which IEDs were found and cleared improved by 50%, the number of attacks required to cause a casualty quadrupled from five to 20. More importantly for the long-term establishment of resilient security structures, however, the development of protective equipment as well as the adaption of tactics and trainings remain the only solutions to overcome the diametrically opposed relationship between the need for a comprehensive, sustainable counterinsurgency engagement and the need for force protection.
Benedikt Zimmermann is an Analyst at IB Consultancy. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in European Studies and a Master of Laws in International Law and Security.