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- Monday, January 09, 2012 - From Print Edition


ISLAMABAD: It is not wise to link the US aid to Pakistan to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), say Pakistani experts. This week President Obama signed into law Defence Authorization Act 2012, a bill by a US Congressional panel, freezing $700 million in aid to Pakistan until Islamabad gave assurances it was helping fight the spread of homemade bombs or IEDs in Afghanistan.


The US Congressional panel claimed many IEDs were made using ammonium nitrate, a common fertiliser smuggled across the border from Pakistan. According to media reports, the United States wants “assurances that Pakistan is countering improvised explosive devices in their country that are targeting our coalition forces.”


Pakistani military and agriculture experts are not so sure. They say that calcium ammonium nitrate was being produced in Pakistan for the last 40 years. Some 600,000 metric tons is produced each year, half of it split between Fatima Group comprising Pak Arab Fertilisers and Fatima Fertilisers, each producing 300,000 metric tons. This is less than one percent of the total world production of 3.7 million tons of the product.


The experts say calcium ammonium nitrate is used in arid regions and sandy soil and where there is scarcity of water. It is the lifeline of subsistence farming in the regions where land holdings are either very small or unproductive due to the scarcity of water. Being economical, it is used by low-income families.


They say the product normally used in IEDs is made of 68% of nitric acid and was called ammonium nitrate. On the other hand, calcium ammonium nitrate is made with 60% nitric acid.


“The IED used in Oklahoma bombing comprised calcium ammonium nitrate and it took 15 years for legislation in this regard by the American legislators and government,” said a defence expert at an Islamabad think tank. “How can we legislate against it overnight when it took the US 15 years?”


He said Fatima Group had taken several steps in response to the US pressure on use of calcium ammonium nitrate for IEDs. The group had changed identification of bags by using different colours, cut down dealerships in northern Pakistan and reduced supplies. Also, the company was cooperating with the US to change colours of the product.


He also pointed out that given the long and porous border with Afghanistan, it was not possible to stop the smuggling of the product.


Experts say the stoppage of $700 million US aid would affect poor farmers in the country. They say there is no evidence that only Pakistani fertilisers are being used for IEDs in Afghanistan since calcium ammonium nitrate is also being made in Iran and Uzbekistan and being smuggled to Afghanistan. Other countries of the region are also making it.


“What is the guarantee that Taliban will not go for some other material for making IEDs if the alleged smuggling of calcium ammonium nitrate from Pakistan is stopped?” a military affairs expert questioned adding that linking Pakistan aid to IEDs was an unwise step.


According to media reports, Lt Gen Michael Oates, who oversees Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO), had recently stated that “a lack of technological expertise among Afghans means the locally manufactured IEDs are of a simpler design than those deployed against the US forces in Iraq, making them harder to detect by NATO troops and hence more effective.”


The report further quoted him as saying: “The low metallic content in fertiliser-based bombs is very difficult to detect, and much of the high-tech bomb-detection equipment that worked well in Iraq does not help in Afghanistan.”


The JIEDDO was created in 2005 and so far has been provided US$21 billion during the last six years. However, it has been reported that JIEDDO had failed to produce results despite investing in more than 1,000 counter-IED initiatives.


As a result, Capitol Hill has become frustrated with JIEDDO’s work and the House Armed Committee threatened to halve its budget last year unless the organisation provided detailed visibility about budget utilisation. Congress is of the view that the IED threat has been overstated and considers JIEDDO as liability.