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Defusing Explosive Landscapes

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IEDs, which accounted for three-quarters of British deaths in Afghanistan last year, may make the war impossible to win.

Immortalised in popular culture by the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the ideal metaphor for the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite all its firepower and money, the US has been unable to defuse these weapons of the weak.

What Viet Cong punji sticks were to napalm in Vietnam, IEDs are to unmanned drones in Afghanistan and Iraq. They remain the biggest killer of western troops. Of British casualties in 2009, 75% were a result of IED explosions.

The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards recently returned to the UK after six months in Helmand where they had been engaged in more than 1,300 gunfights and had come across more than 500 IEDs -- 62 of which had gone off. The US military recorded 8,159 IED incidents in Afghanistan in 2009, compared with 3,867 in 2008 and 2,677 the year before. Denis MacShane argued recently that troops being sent to Afghanistan were "IED fodder."

In May, the British Army's top bomb disposal officer, Colonel Bob Seddon, resigned over fears that bomb disposal training could be compromised. Yet on his visit to Afghanistan this month, prime minister David Cameron announced £67m to counter IEDs and said that the number of teams dealing with the devices would be doubled.

The Americans have already spent over $17bn countering them. However, finding technical solutions to the IED threat, from hunting drones that can detect the heat signature of recently relaid asphalt to high-tech jamming devices, are a fool's errand, as the insurgents quickly adapt their low-tech devices. Remember, an IED is -- as Global Security explains -- "almost anything with any type of material and initiator."

I have spoken with several high-level military commanders in Iraq who described how the internet was used to connect bomb designers across the world with the practitioners in country. They were amazed by how quickly the insurgents adapted to countermeasures brought into the field.

All manner of tactics have been deployed by the bombers, from pressure plates, phone and infrared detonations, bombs attached to animals, vehicles and people. They have succeeded in creating an "explosive landscape" where every person or object is a potential threat.

In this context it might seem that the vast efforts put into countering IEDs are largely gesture politics designed to show that the governments are doing something. General Michael Oates, director of the military's Joint IED Defeat Organisation, drove a stake through those who believe otherwise when he said: "I don't think you can defeat the IED as a weapon system. It is too easy to use."

What is more, how can the western allies hope to win a war of hearts and minds when soldiers are increasingly physically dislocated from the population?

This is the paradox at the heart of attempts to counter IEDs. General McChrystal speaks of the idea that "when you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them." Yet an obvious by-product of countering explosive threats has been a huge increase in the protection given to the soldiers. Mastiffs and Mine Resistant Ambush-Proof vehicles (MRAPs) are essentially an attempt to create mobile Green Zones. These 14-tonne vehicles costing $500,000 each lumber through Afghanistan, a country with a GDP per capita of $800 -- a continuing reminder of the distance between "them" and "us." Reports suggest that by 2015, one-third of US Army fighting vehicles may be unmanned. It would appear that strategic planners in Washington are aiming to win future wars among the people without even using people.

The IED is both a major tactical and symbolic weapon in modern warfare. The key question is not whether the threat can be removed or sufficiently negated, but whether steps taken in countering IEDs weaken the strategic aim of winning a counterinsurgency and being able to withdraw from the country.

The unpopularity of the war (which will surely increase once the 300th British life is lost) makes it extremely difficult for the counterinsurgency enthusiasts to keep their soldiers in harm's way in order to sustain the surge into Taliban-controlled areas. Until this paradox is addressed, western policy will continue its deadly drift in Afghanistan.

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