IED, 2000-luvun ''weapon of choice''

Afghanistan war logs: How the IED became Taliban's weapon of choice

Improvised explosive devices – homemade bombs – are the conflict's biggest killer of troops and civilians

It begins with a relative trickle in the east of Afghanistan in 2004. Five years later it is the Taliban's favoured weapon across the country and the biggest killer of coalition soldiers by a large margin.

But the IED – improvised explosive device – not only strikes foreign troops on ground patrols and in road convoys, it is also an indiscriminate terror weapon killing and injuring thousands of civilians.

The unprecedented mass of data in the leaked war logs presents the most comprehensive picture yet of successful violence by the Taliban. The soaring number of attacks by these increasingly powerful homemade bombs can clearly be seen to be focused in the southern and eastern provinces.

In 2004, according to the logs, there were 308 makeshift bombs; last year there were 7,155. Taliban fighters in total planted more than 16,000 IEDs in those five years.

On 22 June last year, in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, the US military log says: "A little boy picked up the IED and it exploded in his hands killing him. The IED blast caused people to gather around the little boy, then a motorcycle drive up and detonated his suicide IED motorcycle." The end result was reported to be nine civilians killed and 42 wounded.

On 7 October 2009, six locals were going to Sarobi in eastern Afghanistan to buy cattle "when they struck an IED, instantly killing three of the occupants. A 70-year-old male suffered a gaping head, a 40-year-old suffered an eye injury and [a] 20-year-old had his ear drums blown out".

The logs suggest that Taliban insurgents have killed or injured at least 7,000 Afghan civilians in IED attacks between 2004 and 2009. The number has increased tenfold over that time. Civilian casualties rose even after Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader, ordered insurgents to avoid killing bystanders.

In May last year, he said suicide bombers should only attack "high and important targets". "A brave son of Islam should not be used for lower and useless targets. The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties." He called on his fighters to win over the Afghan people.

Yet in August, 429 civilians were killed or wounded by IEDs, the highest recorded in the logs. Investigators working for the UN said in January that the Taliban were responsible for more civilian deaths than the US-led military coalition. They criticise the Taliban for "indiscriminately" killing civilians by detonating IEDs in crowded markets or on busy roads.

Taliban fighters appear to have been prepared to blow up large numbers of people in order to assassinate a single target, such as a high-ranking government official or police chief.

For example, in February 2008, a suicide bomber caused havoc at a dog-fighting meet near Kandahar, killing or injuring more than 100 civilians, in a successful quest to assassinate one tribal leader. Another attack in September 2007 claimed around 70 civilian casualties near markets in Helmand province.

"It appears to be a suicide attack intended to target a police chief, Aram Attulah. The explosion killed this police chief and 10 of his security detail," reads the log.

IED attacks this year will be higher than ever, according to the latest Pentagon figures. The numbers are rising even though the US military has spent $17bn struggling to neutralise IEDs in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Since 2006 the Taliban can be seen to have changed tactics. The insurgents began to rely more on IEDs than confrontational gun battles. Lieutenant General Michael Oates, the director of the Pentagon agency in charge of countering IEDs, admitted in March: "I don't think you can defeat the IED as a weapon system. It is too easy to use."

The IEDs are built in a variety of ways with the aim of inducing permanent anxiety among troops and the populace. Some are detonated remotely by a transmitter such as a mobile phone or hand-held radio, while others are ignited by thin wires attached to switches such as washing machine timers. Others are "victim-operated" – they go off when the unsuspecting soldier or civilian steps on a trip wire or a pressure plate.

The insurgents load bombs into lorries and crash them into targets. The logs are replete with accounts of suicide-bombers ("PBIEDs", or person-borne IEDs, according to the US army jargon) who strap bombs to their bodies. A typical example occurred on 7 May 2009 in the town of Gereshk in Helmand when a "PBIED …crashed his motorcycle into a patrol, as he got to his feet he detonated himself".

Horse-drawn carts have been also used to explode the bombs next to patrolling soldiers.

The highest number of IED attacks occurred on three consecutive days – 18-20 August last year – when the country voted for a new president. The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the election and planted between 33 and 37 IEDs on each of the three days, killing or wounding at least 100 in the coalition and among their Afghan allies. Several attacks were made on polling stations and staff.

According to the logs, the Americans have located and disabled more bombs than have exploded, yet they have so far been unable to halt the attacks.

The logs record that 8,582 of the Taliban's IEDs were found and cleared, but 7,553 successfully exploded.
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