Last week, Army Specialist Anthony Vargas, 27, of Reading, Pa., lost his life in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device.
Marine Lance Corporal Larry Johnson, from my home town of Scranton, was killed in Afghanistan last February. Lance Corporal Johnson was trained as a combat engineer whose job it was to seek and destroy improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He was 19 years old.
As we target the IED assembly line, we must remember these servicemen and the thousands of other troops and civilians who have been killed or wounded by the number one killer of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Today, I chaired a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs to examine the grave implications of the threat posed by ammonium nitrate and other precursor ingredients in IEDs.
The statistics on IEDs in Afghanistan are sobering. In 2009 alone, more than 6,000 IEDs were discovered. A recent Pentagon report said that fully 80 percent of IEDs in Afghanistan are made using AN. Through the first nine months of 2010, 190 U.S. troops have perished and an astounding 2,459 have been wounded by IEDs. This year, more than 1,200 Afghan civilians have been killed by IEDs.
In response, the Afghan government banned the use of AN as a fertilizer earlier this year. Despite this effort and vigilance by Afghan National Security Forces, IED incidents and casualties have steadily increased. The Afghan government appears committed to this fight and has enacted the appropriate legal measures and enforcement efforts. But ammonium nitrate is still ubiquitous in Afghanistan due to smuggling along supply routes from its neighbors, particularly from Pakistan.
The amounts of AN reportedly ferried into Afghanistan from Pakistan are staggering. The Los Angeles Times reported in May that as much as 85 tons of ammonium nitrate was smuggled into Afghanistan from Pakistan in a single night, a shipment that could yield more than 2,500 IEDs.
What can Pakistan do to address this common threat?
First, the Pakistani parliament should pass legislation that better restricts ammonium nitrate and other explosive precursor materials like potassium chlorate. While I understand that farmers in Pakistan rely on AN as a fertilizer, especially of cotton, Pakistani officials may want to consider a temporary ban during this precarious period.
Second, more needs to be done to track the flow of ammonium nitrate inside of Pakistan.
Finally, the U.S. needs to work more closely with Pakistan to ensure that AN does not flow across the border to Afghanistan.
I have reached out to numerous senior officials in Pakistan and the United States to implore them to focus on this fundamental threat to our troops and civilians in the region. I spoke with General David Petraeus on the very day that he was confirmed in the Senate for his current post in Afghanistan about the threat posed by AN. Former U.S. Ambassador to Anne Patterson was a stalwart leader on this issue in Islamabad, working to ensure that AN was part of bilateral discussions with the Pakistanis. I look forward to continuing this dialogue with her very distinguished successor Ambassador Cameron Munter.
In June, the Senate passed my bipartisan resolution calling for governments in the region to effectively monitor and regulate the manufacture, sale, transport and use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
We have witnessed positive developments in recent months. Ambassador Holbrooke’s team has focused in on this problem and has intensified its engagement on this issue. DHS is playing a lead role in Project Global Shield, which if successful will stem the international flow of precursor chemicals that can be used in homemade bombs. JIEDDO and the Department of Defense have played important leadership roles in attacking IEDs and their supply networks. And later this month, the Pakistani government will host a National Counter-IED forum, an essential step towards establishing a whole of government approach to address the problem.
Pakistan has suffered horrific losses of security personnel and civilians over the past few years. By working together, I believe that we can make progress to cut off supply lines and deny extremists a key material that is killing our troops. We know that we cannot completely eradicate AN overnight. But, if through our collective efforts, we can make it that much harder for the bomb-maker, then we will have accomplished a lot.
We must exercise extraordinary vigilance in stemming the unregulated flow of ammonium nitrate in this region because of its importance to U.S. national security and the lives of our troops and our allies.