|Marines carry a wounded comrade to a waiting helicopter after an improvised explosive device detonated near their armored vehicle in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Tuesday. (Associated Press)|
The Army general who commanded the war against homemade bombs that have killed and maimed thousands of Americans in Afghanistan has left the Pentagon knowing he scored a major victory.
In December, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero took off the gloves before a Senate panel and criticized a Pakistani fertilizer conglomerate for failing to cooperate in keeping its product from falling into the hands of Taliban makers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The Fatima Group of Lahore was “less than cooperative” and “they have not implemented any effective product security or stewardship efforts,” Gen. Barbero told senators.
Gen. Barbero said Fatima had a change of heart around February. After refusing to talk with him, Fatima began discussions that led to several safeguards for its calcium ammonium nitrate, a much-used explosive ingredient for homemade IEDs.
“My assessment is, A.) they are sincere, and, B.) they have taken some actual steps to try to put some control on the free flow of this material,” said Gen. Barbero, who was honored at a mid-May retirement ceremony after leading the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization for more than two years.
A government source said some in the joint organization credit The Washington Times for the turnaround. On Jan. 27, The Times disclosed that Fatima's Midwest Fertilizer Corp. was capitalizing on $1.3 billion in tax-free bonds to build its first U.S. plant in Indiana at the same time it was refusing to help the armed forces reduce IED casualties.
Gen. Barbero attributed Fatima's about-face to several factors, including pressure from the public, a decision by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to freeze state support and the fact that Pakistanis have been victims of homemade bombs.
He listed major steps taken by Fatima:
• Tracking calcium ammonium nitrate by using clearly labeled yellow bags that contain lot numbers that are in a central database.
• Inspecting and educating distributor sites about the need to monitor buyers, and assuring that there are no “ghost” middlemen.
“They said they have closed down a number of them,” Gen. Barbero said. “We did some checking and found that they had taken some steps there.”
• Stopping sales in two border provinces — Baluchistan east of Kandahar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa east of Kabul — that are home to bomb-making networks, and recalling all calcium ammonium nitrate.
“Our commanders in Afghanistan said Chaman [Baluchistan] is the hub. That’s where they operate from,” the general said.
• Developing harder-to-detonate fertilizer made from calcium ammonium nitrate. Fatima is testing the product and has agreed to U.S. joint testing.
“I believe they are sincere and they believe they have produced this reformulation,” Gen. Barbero said.