KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Spc. Joshua Joe drives a "Husky," a giant vehicle built to find and withstand the blast of a roadside bomb, putting him in the front line of the U.S.-led coalition's battle against the Taliban's most effective weapon in Afghanistan.
Seventeen U.S. troops fell to improvised explosive devices in a five-day period that began Aug. 27, and the weapons accounted for about 60 percent of the 485 International Security Assistance Force deaths this year through August, according to iCasualties.org, which tracks casualties in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. IED's also are a prime cause of casualties among Afghan civilians.
The threat requires specialist IED hunters and specially designed vehicles. The Husky is the lead vehicle in an IED clearance convoy of hulking, bizarre-looking vehicles — with such names as the Buffalo — that seem like creations for a sci-fi movie.
The Husky carries just one person, who's the driver and operator, perched on top of the vehicle in a tiny cab, basically just waiting to drive over any bomb the equipment doesn't detect, and hoping that the machine is strong enough to avert serious injury.
At the 174 Mobility Augmentation Company, a counter-IED unit stationed at Kandahar Airfield in the insurgency hot spot of southern Afghanistan, Joe, a broad-built 22-year-old from Sumter, S.C., with the Lord's Prayer tattooed on his bulging forearm, is one of the Husky drivers.
"I like being by myself. The first time I was scared. Got used to it now. It don't bother me no more," said Joe, a reservist with the South Carolina Army National Guard who's on his second tour in Afghanistan.
"My main goal is to find IEDs before they find us. If I get hit, that's part of the job," said Joe, who prays before the mission, during the mission and after the mission. "The vehicle is made to get blown up. The convoy's first defense is my Husky."
The Husky is built to withstand a 2,000-pound explosion, which would be more than enough to take out a medium-sized building. Two of Joe's friends and fellow Husky operators hit IEDs, and both walked away intact.
Joe's platoon, which is part of Task Force Thor, prays together in a huddle before beginning a mission. A typical operation lasts eight hours, but some run to 24 hours of slow, tense driving. Thor is responsible for clearing IEDs from the main routes in the south, primarily in Kandahar province, including Highway One, the arterial road that circles Afghanistan.
"It's like a suspense movie that lasts eight hours," said 2nd Lt. Joseph Powell, of Murrells Inlet, the 23-year-old leader of the South Carolina National Guard platoon. "It's kinda like being on edge all that time, but it lasts so long it's like a boring on edge."
Some of the task force vehicles are fitted with arms to dig up the IEDs, while others have video cameras that can be maneuvered to look over walls and under culverts, and some, like the Husky, have ground-penetrating radar that can detect a bomb buried under the road.
Because the route-clearance convoys move so slowly, they'd usually be a tempting target for ambushes, but the Taliban have learned that the vehicle's thick armor means it's usually not worth the effort. A 300-pound IED can level a building, but an 800-pound blast under one of these machines probably wouldn't cause serious injury to anyone inside.
The platoon has taken four IED strikes since it was first deployed in January, but no fatalities or even serious injuries. Powell likened the work of the Husky operator to the scouts of the civil war era.
"It takes a special person. You're out there by yourself, flapping in the wind," he said.
Coalition forces are pitted in a constant contest of technology against the IED. The Taliban use increasingly sophisticated tricks, which coalition forces counter, forcing the insurgents to come up with something fresh. Some are remote-controlled — which coalition forces can jam — while others are victim-triggered or set off by an insurgent several hundred yards away on the end of a wire hooked up to the device. New tools can detect those wires, but the Taliban lay hoax IEDs and watch to see how the coalition tackles them.
The equipment that Thor has didn't exist three years ago, said the task force operations officer, Maj. Robert Moore of the 105th Engineer Battalion.
Task Force Thor — an acronym for "Target Hazards, Open Roadways" — has found and cleared 175 fully armed IEDs since it's been deployed, and hit another 75.
"These guys are the bravest of the brave," said Moore, who's from Charlotte, N.C. "They put themselves between the enemy's most effective weapon and the population of Afghanistan."
"There is a laser focus on this weapon the enemy has," Moore said, referring to IEDs. "Yes, there are a lot of casualties, but we find and clear two-thirds of them."
While losses in Afghanistan are running at record levels, Moore pointed out that the Afghan conflict has seen on average 300 "explosive hazards" per month, compared with 3,000 a month at the height of the insurgency in Iraq.
Those who lay the IEDs are often part-time insurgents, men looking to earn some extra cash by doing jobs for the Taliban. A skilled IED layer can place one in 30 minutes, Moore said.
In one incident in the south, a surveillance aircraft spotted four men getting out of a station wagon to lay an IED in the road, according to a coalition official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with journalists.
An airstrike was called in, taking out the men and their vehicle. It later was discovered that there were eight people still in the station wagon, women and children. The men had taken their families with them, laying the bombs on their way to somewhere else.
"We need to get the guy paying the $10 Taliban. It's easy to kill the one laying the device, but it's pointless," said the coalition official, who didn't specify a date for the incident.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan news at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul
McClatchy Newspapers 2010