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The improvised explosive devices that have been a leading cause of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are not going away, the Pentagon's top counter-IED official said Thursday and the threat could grow worse as the drawdown continues.
About 14,500 IED attacks in Afghanistan in 2012 have killed or injured 1,874 U.S. troops.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. casualties from IED attacks could increase in Afghanistan as troops are withdrawn both because U.S. forces may lose their "situational awareness" and because troop movements will become more predictable, making them easier targets.
"Fertilizer-based explosives still remain our greatest challenge in Afghanistan," he said. "More than 85 percent of IEDs employed against coalition forces are homemade explosives."
Seventy percent of the devices are made from a common agricultural fertilizer produced in Pakistan. A commonly available blasting cap also made by Pakistani companies often sets off the explosive, Barbero said.
Although the same fertilizer is produced in other countries, Barbero said there is no evidence that any source other than Pakistan is responsible for the material used in the IEDs showing up in Afghanistan.
Controlling the availability of materials has proved difficult, Barbero said. Coalition forces have made "record seizures" of IED components being smuggled into Afghanistan, but that has not significantly slowed the flow.
"We are playing defense," Barbero said.
On paper, Pakistan has a plan to control IED materials, but lawmakers are not convinced that nation is doing all it can.
"We need to see action," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., chairman of the committee's Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs panel, who proposes better tracking to monitor materials, tighter border controls and possibly linking foreign aid for Pakistan to its efforts to reduce the IED threat.
Barbero said it's in Pakistan's interest to help.
"Pakistan has a significant and growing IED challenge that threatens its own soldiers and populace."
John Carpenter, the State Department's senior economic adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said efforts are underway to disrupt and degrade the "IED assembly line" that involves a transnational network for supplying materials and funding for bomb makers using legal and illegal activities. He said the State Department is pressing Pakistan and other countries to treat the flow of IED materials as a common threat requiring regional cooperation.