Counterterrorism: U.S. Agencies Face Challenges Countering the Use of Improvised Explosive Devices in the Afghanistan/Pakistan Region

GAO-12-907T Published: Jul 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2012.
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What GAO Found

We identified four categories of assistance U.S. agencies have provided: (1) counter-IED training and equipment, (2) a counter-IED public awareness campaign, (3) training of border officials, and (4) legal assistance for laws and regulations to counter IEDs and IED precursors. We found that each agency providing counter-IED assistance to Pakistan performs a unique role based on its specialized knowledge and expertise. DHS, for example, takes primary responsibility for border management and customs investigation training. DHS conducts joint regional training and operational exercises for both Pakistani and Afghan border officials, including international border interdiction training and cross-border financial investigation training. DHS also plays a lead role in Program Global Shield to foster cross-border cooperation and initiate complementary border management and customs operations. According to DHS, the main goals of Program Global Shield are (1) to identify and interdict falsely declared explosive precursor chemicals, (2) to initiate investigations of smuggled or illegally diverted IED materials, and (3) to uncover smuggling and procurement networks that foster illicit trade.

In providing assistance to Pakistan, which adopted a counter-IED strategy in 2011, U.S. agencies have encountered a range of challenges. U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and Islamabad, Pakistan identified the following key difficulties that hamper the provision of training and equipment.

  • Obtaining visas for U.S. officials.
  • Vetting Pakistani officials to receive U.S. training
  • Ensuring timely delivery of equipment
  • Reaching agreement on the specifics of U.S. assistance projects
  • History of smuggling across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
  • Availability of CAN substitutes for IEDs
  • Smuggling of IED precursors into Afghanistan from other bordering countries
  • Delay in finalizing Pakistan’s National Counter-IED Implementation Plan

Why GAO Did This Study

Approximately 80 percent of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan contain homemade explosives, primarily calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) smuggled from Pakistan. These IEDs have been a major source of fatalities among U.S. troops in Afghanistan and have been used by various insurgent groups in Pakistan to kill thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of Pakistani security forces. U.S. officials recognize the threat posed by the smuggling of CAN and other IED precursors from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and various U.S. departments, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are assisting Pakistan’s government in countering this threat.

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), CAN is produced in Pakistan at two factories. DOD estimates that about 240 tons of CAN—representing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the two factories’ total annual production capacity—is used by insurgents to make IEDs for use in Afghanistan. When processed and mixed with fuel oil, CAN fertilizer becomes a powerful homemade explosive. DOD officials noted that only a small amount of CAN is required to make powerful IEDs. According to DOD, a 110-pound bag of CAN yields about 82 pounds of bomb-ready explosive material. This small quantity has the capacity to destroy an armored vehicle or detonate 10 small blasts aimed at U.S. forces conducting foot patrols.

For more information, contact Charles Michael Johnson, Jr. at (202) 512-7331, or,

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