Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

  There’s good money in IEDs

When the excellent bloggers at asked me to join their team, the second question that came up was who I am and how do I define my writing? (I can’t get any mileage at the moment out of the first question - what my pseudonym means – so I’ll leave it to one side.) My immediate response, “a regular, old-fashioned bitch on wheels,” doesn’t seem entirely adequate, after further reflection.

What I really am is proud of the American democratic tradition, and indignant at what our nation has become under the stewardship of George W. Bush. The news media had little time for the concerns of people like me, so I was drawn to communicate them on line.

For my inaugural post at Unbossed, I chose a topic that really ought to make anybody indignant. The Pentagon (yeah, them again) created a small unit three years ago to find solutions to the roadside bombs in Iraq. That budget has exploded and defense contractors are making a killing. But the IED problem is no closer to being solved.

It’s fair to say that these bombs are central to the insurgency. They kill coalition troops, Iraqi police and military, and civilians. Fear of them is paralyzing the country and damaging the economy, and their effects intensify the hostility that Iraqis feel toward the American forces occupying their country. The military recognized immediately the need to combat IEDs. The story of how the Pentagon tried to achieve that goal perfectly illustrates many of its failings in the Bush era.

The Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender had some pretty unflattering things to say about the program in a major report on the 25th.

A special military task force on improvised explosive devices -- launched in 2003 as a 12-person office to develop quick strategies for combating homemade bombs in Iraq -- has quietly expanded into a $3 billion-per-year arm of the Pentagon, with more than 300 employees and thousands of contract workers, according to Pentagon data analyzed by the Globe.

The growth comes amid complaints within the military that the group's emphasis on high-tech solutions -- mainly through big contracts to traditional defense companies -- has not succeeded in stemming the number of attacks.

The expansion of the task force from a small, quick-moving unit intended to bring creative thinking to the IED threat into a larger Pentagon department recently caught the eye of Congress. The House passed a bill earlier this month seeking to know the precise number of employees, where they work, and how much money is being spent on administrative overhead. The bill is pending in the Senate. …

General John Abizaid , the head of US military forces in the Middle East, recently complained to members of the IED group that its emphasis on multimillion-dollar contracts to develop high-tech sensing equipment has been ineffective at curbing attacks by homemade bombs, according to a person who was present.

Abizaid said the office -- which last year was renamed the Joint IED Defeat Organization -- should focus more on nontechnical solutions, such as figuring out where the explosives are coming from and who is planting them, the official said.

A recent report commissioned by the Pentagon, written by a team of counter-insurgency specialists and provided to Abizaid, was blunt: "The response to the IED has been primarily to increase force protection by emphasizing technical solutions which have proven insufficient," said the internal report, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. "Business as usual will no longer suffice."

Ah, but business is good, and there you have the Bush administration writ large.

Interviews with current and former members of the task force…revealed widespread frustration that money and other resources were going into long-term deals with major defense contractors.

“This is a perfect example of a Cold War mind-set,” said one former official who held a senior post in the office and has since left government. “The office needs to be moved out of Washington and into Iraq if they are really going to solve this problem.”

The ‘Cold-War mindset’ is fueled by an exploding budget, $6.1 billion so far and $3.3 billion for next year alone. For years Congress piled goodies into Iraq War Supplemental bills with abandon, and when recently it decided to wield the power of the purse slightly more aggressively, the Pentagon was quick to complain that programs will have to be cut thus endangering the troops. Only a few weeks ago, the Pentagon tried to stampede Congress by suggesting that any stalling on the omnibus Supplemental bill meant specifically that the Joint IED Defeat Organization (‘JIEDDO’) was under attack.

If it isn’t, it deserves to be. JIEDDO has very few successes to show, has lost its way, has wasted precious time while thousands have died or been injured, and has instead taken the path toward entrenching itself in bureaucracy.

In seeking purely technical fixes to what is only partly a technical problem, JIEDDO has focused on tactical rather than strategic solutions. It failed to pursue cheaper (because low tech), more effective, and quicker strategies to reducing the number and effectiveness of IEDs – such as identifying the bombers and isolating them from their communities. JIEDDO also ignored the IEDs’ impact upon Iraqis, civilian and military. It evaded the essential but embarrassing problem that the explosives should not have fallen into the hands of insurgents in the first place. The Globe report concentrates on these kind of failings.

The campaign “is poorly focused," stated the Pentagon assessment prepared for Abizaid's command. “A better strategy would focus on preventing Iraqis from becoming involved in the insurgency." It criticized the IED effort for failing to protect ordinary Iraqis from the homemade bombs and suicide car bombs.

The Pentagon “has given little attention to effects of IEDs on the [Iraqi Security Forces], the civilian population, and the Iraqi infrastructure," according to the assessment. “Protecting the population is one of the key precepts of counterinsurgency. …

Last year, at a meeting in Baghdad to discuss new technology to combat IEDs, Abizaid said that he had seen French film footage showing insurgents planting a homemade bomb in full view of Iraqi bystanders.
Abizaid said he was stunned by the “party atmosphere surrounding this event,"…

The commanding general's meaning was clear…Expensive Pentagon devices will not stop the bombings. Only people can stop the bombings.

Perhaps it’s just standard issue incompetence, but with people dieing every day from IEDs the resemblance to Catch-22 can’t go unremarked. Just yesterday three more American soldiers were killed by bombs.

I’d be more willing to cut JIEDDO some slack if all that expensive technology was showing real promise. So far, though, the most successful machinery does little beyond destroying IEDs once they’re discovered - for example a robot termed JIN, which an LA Times report in February somewhat naively touted as an easy fix that just needed to be mass produced (at $200,000 per robot). Yet as one commenter noted at another blog

Unfortunately, the JIN doesn't provide us with any capabilities that we don't already have. It doesn't detect anything -- simply uses a lightening bolt to do what we've been doing all along with C-4 and bullets. It's a more complex, more expensive way to do business, and make a bunch of fat cats richer... We're putting Marines in harms way for that.

As this Associated Press report makes clear, there’s little chance that advances in technology can keep pace with the inventiveness of insurgents in finding new ways to conceal IEDs. And sweeping roads in Iraq of bombs will barely make a dent anyway.

"There's a road we called IED Alley that the ordnance disposal guys would clear regularly," [Sgt. Robert] Lewis, 47, of Carrollton, Ga., said at his current post in western Iraq. "But no sooner would they reach the end of that stretch" eight miles "than the insurgents would be planting IEDs again at the beginning."

To sum up: The Pentagon has lost sight of the original goal of the IED program, and has instead devoted its considerable energies to spending vast sums of money in ways that have little chance of providing more than minimal protection to our troops in Iraq. I wonder if plain old corruption could be involved?

Just by chance so does POGO, the experts in corruption. It appears that MZM Inc. leapt into the IED business sometime in 2005. That would have been before its CEO, Mitchell Wade, pleaded guilty to bribing Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham.

A mere bump in the road on the path to the IED gravy depot, however. MZM, now called ‘Athena Innovative Solutions’, is even at this moment offering careers for ‘Counter-IED Specialists’. It sounds to me like Athena knows there is money to be made in the IED industry.

Crossposted at Unbossed.


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