To grasp the severity of Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero’s $40-fertilizer-bomb problem, it helps to consider some much bigger numbers.
Barbero heads a U.S. military command, with an annual budget of about $2.8 billion, that was created to stem U.S. casualties from insurgent bombs. In just the past few months, he has shelled out $24 million for a new hand-held ground-penetrating radar, $33 million for mini-surveillance robots and $19 million for bomb-resistant underwear.
The insurgent’s weapon of choice in Afghanistan is at the other end of the price spectrum: a plastic jug filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer. So far this year, these cheap, hard-to-detect bombs have wounded about 3,200 U.S. soldiers and Marines, up 22 percent from 2010, according to the Pentagon.
“We are sweeping more and more of this stuff off the battlefield,” Barbero said of the fertilizer bombs. “But it just keeps coming, and it keeps growing.”
Almost all of the ammonium nitrate used in the Taliban’s bombs comes from two big fertilizer plants across the border in Pakistan. Barbero concluded that the best way to slow the Taliban killing was to make it harder for the insurgents to obtain the fertilizer, which is banned in Afghanistan because it can be made into explosives.
In August, the general called Fawad Mukhtar, the chairman of the Fatima Group, which owns the fertilizer plants, and asked to meet with him in Pakistan.
Mukhtar replied that Barbero did not need to travel. He was planning to visit the United States to drop off his son at college and promised to stop by Barbero’s office in Arlington. The two met for about 30 minutes.
Barbero told the Pakistani businessman that the fertilizer from his plants was responsible for most of the U.S. deaths in Afghanistan. Mukhtar countered that less than 1 percent of his product fell into insurgents’ hands and was fashioned into bombs. The vast majority of the fertilizer was used for farming; people depended on his product to eat and live.
“He is not a radical,” Barbero said of Mukhtar. “I think he wants to be part of the solution.”
Mukhtar declined an interview request for this article. A spokesman for the Fatima Group praised Barbero’s efforts in an e-mail. “I am sure that a person of his experience and caliber can be very effective in dealing with the issue of IED related incidents,” he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.
The brief office visit was the beginning of Barbero’s months-long immersion in the global fertilizer industry. He and his staff have studied how the ammonium nitrate fertilizer is made, how it can be processed into a bomb and how it might be modified to make it less dangerous or more detectable by U.S. and Afghan troops at border crossings.
A week after his meeting with Mukhtar, Barbero flew to Denver to address a global conference of ammonium nitrate plant managers. His speech included a plea for help and warnings of onerous regulation if industry executives did not find ways to make ammonium nitrate fertilizer less useful as a weapon.
The plant managers reacted coolly. “They told me how hard it was to make it non-detonable,” Barbero said. “I said I got it. But you need to start working on it.”
Last week, Barbero’s command, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, organized its own fertilizer conference at a hotel in Arlington. About 120 industry executives, agronomists, chemists and military officers met for three days. Mukhtar’s Fatima Group sent a representative from its plant in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Almost immediately, the industry executives raised doubts that there was anything they could do to help the military. The amounts of fertilizer the Taliban were using to make their bombs — about 480,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate a year — seemed minuscule when compared with the global industry’s annual output.
“I appreciate the gravity of the situation,” said Donald Thomas, an executive with Illinois-based CF Industries. “I have a son-in-law who is a lance corporal in the Marines. But when I look at the volumes [in insurgent bombs], it is nothing. It is two rail cars out of millions of tons.”
“I think you need to talk to your son-in-law,” said Bob Best, the top fertilizer expert on Barbero’s staff. “That 480,000 pounds is a big number to him.”
In the summer, the 59-year-old chemist visited the Fatima Group’s fertilizer plant in Multan to understand how the company made and distributed its product.
“It was amazing for me,” recalled Best, who said he received a warm reception from the plant’s technical staff.
A few days after his trip, a Pakistani newspaper alleged that Best was a CIA operative and said that U.S. officials were using a diplomatic facade to “secure niches for their spies and hit men in and around Multan.” Best said the allegations are untrue.