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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 01:31 | SYDNEY

Felling the 'evil flowers'

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13 November 2009 09:55

This week's Wednesday Lowy Lunch featured the ADF's Brigadier Phil Winter speaking on efforts to counter the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices – IEDs, or what Afghans are now calling, with grim poetry, the 'evil flowers'. 

As commander of Australia's Counter-IED Task Force, Brigadier Winter revealed how IEDs are now the number one killer of coalition forces, with this year's fighting season seeing a record number of attacks. Winter stressed the importance of not only exploiting technology, but of relying on the human and cultural dimension to counter IEDs.

You can listen to Brigadier Winter's address here or listen to an excellent follow-up interview with the ABC's Matt Brown here (transcript here). But for me, the key themes were:

  • Over 70% of coalition casualties in Afghanistan – and a similar proportion for Afghan government personnel – occur from IED attack. As a weapon of increasing lethality and ubiquity, the IED is here to stay.  Moreover, insurgents will continue to employ them to target security forces and government workers. Importantly, evidence and events in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere show that the IED threat goes beyond foreign coalition forces — even if coalition forces leave, the IEDs won't necessarily stop. 
  • Attacking the insurgent networks that produce and employ the devices is where the 'smart money' is – answering the questions of who, why, where and when has far greater payoff than simply defeating device after device.
  • The forensic, clinical approach employed now to collect intelligence and do analysis is a fundamental part of attacking the IED networks – akin to a chilling crossover of CSI, Silent Witness and Wire in the Blood. This takes an immense degree of skill and training, inestimable courage and judicious answers to the commander's dilemma of collecting vital intelligence while keeping soldiers' safety paramount.
  • The permeation of ideas, technology and adaptation of the IED threat occurs globally, at times exploiting purpose-built networks but often employing business and finance channels. I've drawn attention to this lethal osmosis previously, and it's important to understand the potential for similar threats to eventuate both domestically and in Australia's region. We have been relatively fortunate, but we are not immune.
  • Countering the IED threat can be characterised as involving 60% training, 30% equipment, and 10% mastering the 'X' factor of nerveless adaptation to the unpredictable and unprecedented. So, while the kit is important, the training as an individual and as a team is easily more than half the battle. Critically, this applies beyond the military to local government agencies, foreign development assistance teams, NGOs and initiatives such as Australia's new Deployable Civilian Capacity. This is a crucial lesson that should not be learned again the hard way. Preliminary training at the professional development, pre-deployment and in-theatre stages are all needed to prepare personnel to manage the IED threat in the field. Developing and maintaining a cooperative approach between organisations is equally important.

As if to embody the importance of sharing and cooperation in this space, Brigadier Winter's presentation was attended by over a dozen senior Iraqi police commanders, here to work with the Australian Institute of Police Management. Multi-agency and multilateral coordination to stem and remove these 'evil flowers' is occurring and ongoing, but more can be done to share between nations and between government, private and non-government organisations, to stay alive and to contribute to attacking the IED networks.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo, used under a Creative Commons license.

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