Thursday, April 27, 2006

Car bombs and WMDs

For all the recent talk about the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the arguable potential/goals for the leadership of Iran, terrorists or any other unfavourable regime or group to aquire them, there exists a weapon of far better economical and practical utility to use - the car bomb. Mike Davis in a two part article published on Tomdispatch and Znet discusses the morbidly fascinating history and development of the car bomb beginning with its first use in a 1920 (horse drawn wagon) attack on J.P Morgan offices in New York and ending in present day Iraq with its,
some 1,293 between 2004 and 2005, according to researchers at the Brookings Institution -- have devastated Iraq like no other land in history. The most infamous, driven or left by sectarian jihadists, have targeted Iraqi Shiites in front of their homes, mosques, police stations, and markets: 125 dead in Hilla (February 28, 2005); 98 in Mussayib (July 16); 114 in Baghdad (September 14); 102 in Blad (September 29); 50 in Abu Sayda (November 19)...

A nuclear Iran is feared because it would shift the balance of strategic power away from the Israel/US alliance and "destabilise" the region. However, as Iraq demonstrates, a sustained car bomb campaign is much more destabilising in real terms, and can be used far more easily for much lower cost than any high-tech/high cost, nuclear weapon.

Indeed, a nuclear weapon's greatest value is in its potential for use. In this way it acts as a guarantor against attack, and allows the possessor much greater clout when engaging in state level confrontation. This is a double edged sword though, because as the Cold War demonstrated, one nation possessing means others will want to as well to counter - MAD doctrine ensues. Not so with the car-bomb. In real terms, they have high practical utility. They are not counterable by traditional means. You can't neutralise them by building your own and you can't build sophisticated radar and missile systems to shoot them down. They can be used to attain tactical and strategic goals, and wreak massive damage in the process for very low cost compared to NBC weapon production and delivery systems or even conventional military weapons. Even the type damage inflicted by a carbomb or IED attrition campaign can possibly be worse in the long-term than a one shot nuclear or chemical attack. A state can recover from the instant loss of hundreds of thousands of its population relatively quickly if the majority of its economic and social infrastructure remains intact whereas a sustained multi-year carbomb campaign even though it may slaughter less has the effect of turning the state into an economically, politically and socially non-viable state entity. [Hmmmmm... it just occured to me an interesting comparison could be made between the effects of various types of wars on non-colonial and post-colonial states.]

Vehicles, people, fertiliser, fuel and in some cases military grade explosives are part of the landscape of the modern industrialised state and so employing them does not require the heavy overhead involved in building and maintaining a separate uniformed armed forces. Robert Bryce explains below:

More than half of all U.S. casualties in Iraq have been caused by improvised explosive devices and those weapons have fundamentally changed how American troops approach the battlefield. First and foremost, the IEDs have changed the very idea of where the battlefield is. Second, the IEDs are employing modern technology that can easily -- and more important, cheaply -- defeat America’s huge horsepower advantage. By using a cell phone-activated detonator for an IED, an insurgent employs miniscule amounts of energy – less than one watt.[9] Put another way, an insurgent employing 0.00099 horsepower can (given a large enough explosive charge) disable or destroy an uparmored Humvee (190 horsepower), an M2 Bradley tank (500 horsepower), or even an M1 Abrams tank (1,500 horsepower).

This is the very essence of asymmetric warfare. For the cost of a disposable cell phone, a detonator, and some (probably free) ordnance, an insurgent can destroy vehicles worth millions of dollars. And in the process, at no extra cost, he gets the chance to kill, maim or injure American soldiers whose training cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

The car bomb with its cousin the improvised explosive device (IED) are attrition weapons used in to change political situation in favour of the user - much different from the potentials discussed when speaking of NBC-WMD systems.

When the neocons speak of war with Iran over the potential of middle-east destablisation or atomic terrorism, they would be wise to examine what is actually happening today in Iraq and the weapons and techniques that are being employed instead of worrying about what might happen in a dozen years...

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