The Taliban's increasing reliance on homemade bombs may be the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass for the insurgency, says a Canadian Forces soldier who helped plan a mission to pull the bombs out of caches and compounds.
"Operation Constrictor" intercepted the equivalent of 30 to 80 bombs from villages near Kandahar over several days, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Patrick said today.
The sweeps also led to the death of a Canadian soldier. Private Alexandre Péloquin, 20, was killed Monday during the mission as he stepped on a hidden bomb. Hundreds of Afghan, Canadian and NATO soldiers had worked to recover 15 explosives on that day, with more bombs and bomb components discovered in the days prior.
The Canadian Forces suggests the effort, while tragic, will save dozens of lives.
"There's an insurgent cell that can no longer project itself," Lt. Col. Patrick, the operations chief for Canada's Joint Task Force Afghanistan, said in a briefing to journalists.
There were firefights along the way, he added. But, as is customary for Canadian Forces, he refused to talk about how many fighters were captured or killed. "I won't get at the numbers but it was very successful."
The sweeps targeted a series of villages in the volatile Panjwayi district, an area west of Kandahar where many, if not most, of the Canadian combat fatalities to date in Afghanistan have occurred.
"Where are the bombs being made?" Lt. Col. Patrick said. "They are being made here."
The rural area is a transit point and staging ground for insurgents trying to get from Pakistan to Kandahar City, he said. The local Panjwayi soil is depleted of nutrients, he added, prompting farmers to buy ammonia-based fertilizer, which can be easily made into bombs.
The military calls them IEDs, improvised explosives devices, and they are "the one effective tool the insurgents have," Lt. Col. Patrick said.
More bombs are placed each year, Lt. Col Patrick said, and he regards it as a sign of desperation. "You could call it a bit of Hail Mary pass. Only time will tell."
He said the IED count partly reflects the surge of NATO and Afghan National Army troops into the area.
While insurgents hope to pick off international military, they more typically kill police and civilians travelling in "soft-skin" vehicles like pickup trucks or tractors. Military vehicles are increasingly designed to survive the blasts.
Fertilizer is only one ingredient in homemade bombs. Lt. Col. Patrick said the sweeps yielded some harder-to-get materials, such as electronic circuitry (used for detonators) and aluminum power (used to spark explosions). Medical equipment, radios, and timers were also seized.
These items will likely be probed to determine where they came from, so intelligence officials can gain a glimpse into the insurgents' supply lines.
It's difficult to say how many bombs were recovered, Lt. Col. Patrick said, given so many were incomplete. Enough material came from the compounds to suggest 30 "very powerful" bombs were taken out of circulation, he said, adding a higher estimate would be closer to 80 less-powerful bombs.
The chief of operations said he hasn't seen the post-mortem yet on the death of Pte. Péloquin, and had no new details to divulge. He did say that buried explosives are difficult even for experts to spot, especially those that have been buried in the ground a long time.
Lt. Col. Patrick said he has little doubt that other bomb making cells are redoubling their efforts. "No, this does not remove the IED threat from the theatre or even the area we're working in," he said.
"We're constantly concerned about them."