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Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper

Improvised Explosive Devices

In Southern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, 2002-2009
  • By Alec Barker
April 5, 2010 |

To properly assess options for improving security along the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it is crucial to empirically characterize what insecurity exists. The role, type, evolution, and migration of homemade bombs – known by the American military as improvised explosive devices or IEDs – have gone underexamined in attempts to understand instability throughout the Pashtun regions of southern Afghanistan and the western Pakistani province of Balochistan. This study presents, analyzes, and assesses data about the use of IEDs by Taliban or Taliban-affiliated Islamist extremists in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, and Balochistan from 2002 to mid-2009. Applying the techniques of geospatial statistical analysis to public or semi-public event information will support the policy debate as U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) counterterrorism efforts in the region are under increasing public scrutiny.

Whereas prior analyses may have considered IEDs in the abstract, or assessed the impact of a particular IED type (such as suicide devices), this project examines all IED trends in detail sufficient to describe methods of construction and operation, lethality, frequency distribution, and geospatial disposition over time. To accomplish these ends, the study uses, merges, and analyzes four distinct data sets: two open-source terrorism databases, one government geospatial information database, and one private intelligence database accessed by special arrangement with the author. This effort also employs geospatial statistical techniques including kernel density estimation, resulting in a set of 42 maps illustrating IED trends.

We found a general and continual increase in the prevalence and effectiveness (in terms of casualties) of IED events across southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan from 2004 to 2009. At least two distinct bombing campaigns, one perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan and parts of Balochistan and another by Baloch separatists in Pakistan, have consistently grown in momentum. Though these campaigns overlap in Quetta, Balochistan’s provincial capital, they differ by tactic, technique, and care to avoid loss of life: The Taliban prefer command-initiated attacks against military and government personnel in which collateral casualties are tolerated, while the Baloch separatists adhere to a pattern of time-initiated attacks against infrastructure in which casualties are avoided.

Kandahar province had been the location most prone to IED violence until early 2009, when it was overtaken by Helmand province in this regard, indicating a shift in the operational emphasis of the Taliban toward the U.S. and British forces operating there. Though northern Nimroz province has experienced fewer events, the area between the towns of Zaranj and Delaram has seen a spate of highly effective suicide attacks against government entities, despite the absence of troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Other patterns include attacks against Indian interests in Nimroz province and anti-Shiite attacks in Balochistan.

This study both acknowledges and scrutinizes the so-called “Iraq effect,” which posits a central role for veterans of the Iraq insurgency in the evolution of Taliban IED tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) in Afghanistan. Without debunking the Iraq effect, we find additional causes and contributing factors – such as the influence of Kashmiri fighters – as well as instances in Afghanistan and Pakistan that predated or conflicted with those in Iraq. While acknowledging local reasons for bombings and bomb innovation, we also suggest a phenomenon of generalized and global TTP acceleration in which generations of terrorists and insurgents take progressively shorter periods of time to accomplish advances in IED TTPs, supported by information-sharing and training among fighters and improvements in available components.

Alec Barker is a national security analyst and consultant based in Washington, DC. He is a former U.S. Army officer and a graduate of Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities. He is solely responsible for the content of this paper.

For a PDF of this executive summary, click here. For the policy paper, click here. For Appendix 1 of the maps analyzed, click here. For Appendices 2-5 of the data, methodology, acronyms used, and acknowledgments, click here. For a PDF of the executive summary, policy paper, and all appendices, please click here.

At least two distinct bombing campaigns, one perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan and parts of Balochistan and another by Baloch separatists in Pakistan, have consistently grown in momentum.