Institutionalizing Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Lessons Learned from Afghanistan

An Overview – Part 2

By Wing Commander (ret.)

By Wg Cdr



, UK


Joint Air Power Competence Centre

 June 2016
Warfare Domains: Land Operations


As this is the conclusion of a two-part article, it is highly recommended to read, or re-read, Part 1 before reading this portion. As a reminder, this article represents the distillation of many hundreds of hours of work, including a JAPCC team conducting a number of ‘fact finding’ visits to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) over a period of years and C-IED (Counter-Improvised Explosive Device) capability development workshops supported at a variety of headquarters. The JAPCC used engagements with both the C-IED Task Force and the C-IED Centre of Excellence (COE) as vehicles to gather information. The primary method of obtaining data was through discussion with specialists across the spectrum of ranks. Military and civilian, national and Alliance perspectives were recorded and both industry and academia were consulted. As with all JAPCC work, feedback is encouraged, and whilst the author has not gone out of his way to be deliberately provocative, there were some challenging views gathered both in the operational theatre and in headquarters closer to home. These have subsequently been expressed in this article. It is suggested the critical question now is whether NATO could deploy and very quickly – if not immediately – be able to counter a significant IED threat? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the objective has been achieved. If, as is suggested, the answer is ‘no’, do we attempt to do something about this now or, wait and risk paying again with the same or greater ‘blood and treasure’ to re-learn what we should already know?

Courting Controversy Again – The Harsh Reality

Is It Already Too Late? Irrespective of whether the ‘Lessons’ listed here and in Part 1 are correct, it is suggested that both the impetus and structures to facilitate ‘institutionalization’ are already long-gone. The personnel and structures NATO had in the ISAF-era have dissipated back to Nations, into other appointments or have left the military. Equally, as an Alliance, NATO is now focussing on other issues and the IED no longer holds ‘centre stage’. Simply put, current NATO structures may not have sufficient capacity to effectively manage the number of complex threat scenarios that exist today. Whilst predicting the future is difficult, one only need make a cursory search of open source material to see the frequency of IED use worldwide. Therefore, it is reasonable to state we will again face an IED threat and, potentially, that threat could be far more sophisticated than we have already encountered. As with the previous instalment, the ‘challenges’ presented here were included only if they were expressed on a number of occasions and / or across a number of locations.

The Next 11 Lessons

11. Campaign Continuity. An often repeated observation during interviews was there was a lack of ‘Campaign Continuity’. The size of the operational area, the number of nations involved, and the incessant pace of troop rotations meant a lack of consistency in managing the threat of IEDs. Each troop rotation or change of staff in headquarters meant a new approach to the problem. Those serving on longer deployments expressed frustration at the number of changes during their tour. While they acknowledged a need for evolution, particularly in response to changes in enemy tactics, they often saw changes without any understanding of the effects of that change on the force, the civilian population, or indeed, on the adversary. There should be a C-IED Campaign Plan that all agree upon and adhere to across units. A vital element of this plan should be the early development of a Host Nation (HN) C-IED capability.

12. The Role of Culture. In the context of C-IED, we need to far better understand the culture in the midst of which we are operating and attempt to see our activity from the perspective of that culture – a perspective likely to be very different from our own. What has been made clear is whilst many IED incidents can be classed as enemy action against ISAF forces; there were a considerable number of IED attacks conducted by or on behalf of the civilian population. These attacks were the result of other more complex cultural responses to our presence in a theatre of operation. Simply, more investment is required in the training and education of our personnel in order to better prepare them to operate in and amongst other cultures.

13. Communication and Knowledge Management. In conducting in-theatre research, the JAPCC team itself had an effect on units as it moved between locations by simply carrying information. The team led the same or similar discussions at multiple locations. Then, those on the ground at each location would seize on a point as being new, novel, different or even ‘wrong’. The ensuing discussion and exchange of contacts was repeatedly commented on as being extremely useful and led to the development of the concept ‘to defeat a network, you have to create a network’. Personnel in C-IED positions in-theatre were not in-post for sufficient time to allow them to establish, share, and record not just Situational Awareness (SA) but actual Situational Understanding. They were focussed on their task, at their level, for their tour. As with many challenges, the underlying issue was availability of resources. The JAPCC’s activity would seem to indicate there is a need for a team to be continually moving around a theatre of operation, capturing, recording and subsequently sharing information; a second team would be required out-of-theatre to conduct further analysis. The information captured should be placed in a central database. These challenges are likely not unique to C-IED. Is it a step too far to consider whether it is time for the creation of a ‘NATO Knowledge Management Agency’ and / or the further development of the roles and responsibilities of the Joint Allied Lessons Learned Centre (JALLC)? The C-IED COE is the C-IED Lessons Learned Database Manager; however, they are not adequately resourced to actively capture data or to analyse data to develop proper lessons that feed the ‘Capability Development’ process. This must change if we are serious about learning, not just identifying lessons.

14. Strategic Communication. One Centre of Gravity, if not ‘the’ Centre of Gravity, for the Alliance is the concept of ‘Alliance Cohesion’. Our adversaries know this and are well-versed in manipulating the media to their own ends to undermine public opinion, political will and as a result, Alliance Cohesion. In numerous instances, our adversary either filmed their own attacks for internet broadcast or has ensured that a ‘news-hungry’ media outlet has been conveniently present at the scene of an attack. In each case, the narrative has been set by our adversary. In many of the areas where we will operate in future, the cultural dimension of communication has to be considered. It is often the case that ‘perception is truth’ and whoever speaks first is often viewed as the one telling the truth.

15. Capability Development. Frequently, attempts to deliver enhanced capability to the warfighter brought further challenges. Rapid developments in response to an emerging threat are required, but to be effective, robust linkages between research and development personnel, equipment manufacturer and the end user need to be in place. In some cases, capability was delivered in what some described as either a ‘hasty’ or ‘ill-conceived’ manner. The concept of capability being developed along Lines of Development (LoD) has gained considerable traction in NATO and the Capability Development LoD1 are often quoted. Where attempts to deliver capability enhancements have faltered, it has frequently been because all lines of development were not properly considered. The Capability Development process and the use of LoD has proven to work and prevents omissions and oversights; therefore, the process should be rigorously applied.

16. Risk Management. In the context of Alliance C-IED operations, discussions indicate well-understood national Risk Management constructs do not work. Commanders were regularly uneasy with the amount of risk they were expected to tolerate. However, the ability of the commander to transfer risk was mired in a multinational chain of command. Disagreement would centre on whether it was a NATO or national responsibility to resolve the issue. Put simply, there was evident in-theatre frustration to the out-of-theatre answer that nothing could be done because the answer lay with the nations. Without the ability to transfer the decision to the next level or the authority to terminate the mission, the commander was left with little option but to tolerate a level of risk he felt inappropriate. Any politically, or militarily-driven imperative to avoid loss of personnel and equipment at all costs is unrealistic. Countering the IED threat cannot in its self be considered a viable end-state. The Alliance approach to C-IED should always be based on minimizing the risk wherever and whenever possible but, not on risk elimination, as this approach is likely to have a negative impact on the accomplishment of the overall mission. Guidance needs to be provided on acceptable risk levels within the context of the campaign end-state. This guidance should be disseminated down the command chain, allowing risk to be managed at the appropriate level. It is essential commanders are given an assessment of the ‘amount’ of residual risk2 they face and understand the effect their C-IED measures have in mitigating overall risk. From time to time incidents will happen, and senior leadership, both political and military need to understand this.

17. Measures of Effectiveness (MoE). Several commanders expressed uneasiness over the level of resource being expended with no real ability to understand what was being effective and why. As part of any drive to ‘institutionalize’ C-IED as a capability, there needs to be an analysis of what activity was undertaken and in what context to identify whether there is a reliable way to capture and / or measure the effectiveness of C-IED efforts. This would appear to be an ideal task for an external, specialist consultants, possibly from academia and / or industry? With the huge resource implications of maintaining an effective C-IED capability, understanding what works and why will become increasingly important.

18. Understanding Effects. The issue of correctly understanding effects is also linked to the issues of ‘Campaign Continuity’ and ‘Culture’. When IED events were re-investigated it was shown that, in many cases, whilst there were obvious linkages between the event and ISAF activity, there were many other less obvious potential causational factors. More effort should be expended to understand second and third order effects and unintended consequences. Both now and in the foreseeable future, an ability to identify, track, and bring effects to bear on individual elements within a network, the network in its entirety, or indeed on a network of networks, brings with it an inherent need to look beyond just desired effects. Equally, not prosecuting a target may better support campaign or mission objectives because of the intelligence value of leaving a target to operate apparently unhindered and unobserved. For this to happen, greater synchronization is required between intelligence, planning and operations staffs. A better understanding of how our actions affect others from their perspective, not our own, is required. This in turn can be achieved by enhancing cultural training as already proposed elsewhere.

19. The Lessons Learned Process. It has become clear in the course of this work there is a lack of understanding of the ‘Lessons’ process and probably more worryingly, a general lack of ‘faith’ in the system. A significant number of personnel interviewed understood the basic concept of learning lessons in order to avoid repeating mistakes, but many were not aware of the formal NATO process. Where processes were discussed in detail, they were often unit or national processes and there was little understanding of the NATO mechanism. The issue of a lack of faith in systems was expressed as a result of the perception that inputs were made, but there was little, if any feedback. Further, a number of individuals expressed the view that the NATO process was cumbersome and required those with the ‘observation’ to do much of the analysis to identify the lesson themselves, as a result of a lack of dedicated NATO resources. It is recommended that resourcing to the JALCC is significantly increased.

20. Increased Threat or Increased Footprint? A figure quoted by several sources was 70 % of activity in ISAF was self-sustainment related – logistics. New approaches to military operations, including use of renewable energy sources, will lessen the logistics footprint and reduce exposure to IEDs. In October 2005, there were 70 IED incidents in Afghanistan, whilst in Iraq there were 1,6833. However, by the middle of 2009, IED incidents in Afghanistan had reached similar levels4 as those of Iraq in 2005. The ‘Troop Surge’ in Iraq took place during the period March 2007 to July 2008. In Afghanistan, the surge was between December 2009 and July 2011. In both cases, the mid-point of the surge saw the peak of IED incidents5. More boots on the ground equals more targets! Leaders must be educated to understand that a possible consequence of deciding to deploy significantly more personnel, will likely be more casualties.

21. Last But Not Least. There was a point in the ISAF campaign (at the peak of the troop surge) when it could have been argued the political desire to prevent casualties from IEDs was in danger of becoming the focus of the mission. As has been said on numerous occasions, ‘You can’t fix stupid!’ This point is not meant ‘tongue in cheek’. The best way to expand this point is to ask: Why would personnel on numerous occasions enter high, Remote Controlled (RC) IED threat environments with their countermeasures switched off? Or: Why did a company commander collect IED components, construct his own viable IED and bury it on his base, without informing anyone, thinking that these actions would provide a realistic training opportunity (to include casualty management)? The point here, is that however effective a strategy is, in military operations things will inevitably go wrong. Trying to plan for every eventuality increases the risk of diverting or over-burdening already scarce resources. Leaders need to accept that military operations are inherently dangerous. All reasonable measures must be taken to reduce risk, but it cannot be eliminated.


This two-part article has sought to capture and briefly explain numerous Observations and / or Lessons Identified. There are still many more that have yet to be captured. Further, some of what has been presented will, quite correctly, be contradicted by others.

Current Political and Military ‘generations’ are short (perhaps less than ten years?). As highlighted above, there is already a shift towards future challenges and for some the challenges of Afghanistan are now seen as a thing of the past. Clearly, we do have to look to the future and there are numerous challenges ahead for NATO but, as ISAF drew to a close on 31 December 2014, the IED threat did not go away. The IED is both a current and future threat. Work must continue in order to prevent, in a few years’ time, our successors being confronted with the issues that confronted this generation in terms of the Alliance and its Partners being able to effectively counter the IED threat. However, it is also about appropriate balance. We need to have an effective C-IED strategy backed by robust capability, but not at the expense of an ability to counter whatever our adversary conceives next.

Doctrine, Organisation, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities, Interoperability.
The amount of risk still being carried with all current available C-IED measures in place.
Figures from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Figures from Joint IED Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO).
Iraq, May 2009 = 2,482. Afghanistan, May 2010 = 1,128.
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Wing Commander (ret.)
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Wing Commander (ret.) Jez Parkinson is a RAF Regiment Officer with 33-years’ regular Service; over half in the Multinational environment and in excess of 7-years on operations. He continues to work as a Reservist in the Force Protection Environment and as a civilian on Asset Protection collaborating with the military, industry and academia. He is the author of NATO FP Policy, FP Doctrine for Air Operations and the current Custodian for Joint FP Doctrine. He is responsible for the development and delivery of NATO FP Courses as well as writing several publications and articles on FP.

Information provided is current as of February 2022

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