QALAT, Afghanistan — Improvised bombs have killed more American troops in Afghanistan than anything else since the war here began 11 years ago, and they’ll remain a favored insurgent weapon against Afghan soldiers, police and civilians after U.S. forces end their combat mission next year.
That’s why U.S. advisers across Afghanistan are rushing to train hundreds of Afghan engineers to take over the crucial but often unsung task of running routine patrols to sweep the roads of bombs before large numbers of American soldiers start leaving this fall.
“Our conflict right now with the Taliban is only IEDs (improvised explosive devices), because they can’t fight us any other way, so to protect our troops we really need to be good at defeating bombs," said Capt. Muhammed Fahim, who commands one of the front-line Afghan engineer units that will perform “route clearance,” as the job is called.
Fahim’s, unit, part of the 2nd Brigade of the Afghan 205th Corps, works out of Camp Eagle, a major Afghan army base in Zabul province in the restive southeast corner of the country. They’ve already done some independent operations on their own but need more training. He says their skills now are about 40 percent of what they will need to operate on their own, but that within a few months they’ll be ready.
U.S. advisers are helping train two dozen such Afghan units, each with about 80 soldiers. Several units with other roles also are being trained in the job.
Half of the 24 of the Afghan route clearance companies already are running independent operations, four more will be by the end of March, and the rest should be ready in the next three months, said Lt. Col. Torrey DiCiro, who helps oversee Afghan army training for a multi-service task force led by the 555th Engineer Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
The 555th’s task force is responsible for most of the current route clearing in Afghanistan. It’s training Afghan engineer units not only in that specialty but also in more traditional military engineering roles such as building bases, bridges and roads. The task force also is responsible for tearing down U.S. and NATO bases, or retooling them for handover to the Afghans as the coalition troops begin their drawdown.
The Afghan engineers face challenges the Americans don’t. For one, the Afghans won’t have the equipment the Americans do – massive bomb-resistant trucks and high-technology aids, such as ground-piercing radar or television cameras on giant arms to peer into culverts under roads, a popular place to plant large bombs.
They’ll also do the work despite an anemic supply chain and a disdain for maintenance and repair that often leaves them short of vehicles.
What they do have, their U.S. advisers say, is a kind of IED street smarts, a better chance at coaxing information from local residents, and the guts to hunt mines and bombs on foot with their eyes and simple metal detectors.
Several U.S. soldiers helping train the Afghans say those factors actually make the Afghans better at finding IEDs than their U.S. and NATO counterparts.
“The differences are pretty big in the way we’re equipped, but they do it all by eye and they can really pick out stuff,” said Sgt. Michael McCully of Pensacola, Fla., who is with the 870th Engineer Company of the Florida National Guard. The 870th and a sister unit, the Laurinburg, N.C.-based 151st Engineer Company of the North Carolina National Guard, clears bombs in Zabul province.
Col. Nicholas Katers, commander of the 555th Engineer Brigade, said he hears similar reports from U.S. advisers working with Afghans across the country.
“They don’t have the equipment we have, that’s true, but they have better skills at visual detection than we have, and they know the turf, and they know when something doesn’t look right,” Katers said. “And it’s their country, their culture, so they have better sources of information among the locals than we do.”
The Afghan soldiers say that before the U.S. and NATO forces leave, they need every minute of training they can get for the work, which is a perilous combination of menial day labor and a high-stakes chess match with the insurgents. The explosives and triggers are sometimes booby-trapped to foil any attempt to disarm them, and they come in an almost endless variety, with new types cropping up routinely.
“We’ve got some experience in this, and we deal with IEDs by our own ways, but I think we need more specialized training to learn the scientific way to deal with bombs,” said Asadullah, a stocky staff sergeant in Fahim’s unit who like many Afghans goes by one name.
At his side, a lanky, bearded soldier nodded agreement.
“The hardest part of this is all the different kinds of bombs,” said the soldier, Sgt. Subhanullah, who also uses just one name. “There are many types and every day that number is increasing, and we need more equipment, definitely, but the training is very important. We need all that we can get before the Americans leave.”
In various missions, he has helped destroy 20 improvised bombs. The only way to do the work, he says, is complete focus.
“In that time I am working with the bomb I am thinking only about that,” he said. “My feeling is only to eliminate it and save myself and my friends, but we are humans, so yes, in that time I am afraid.”
Among areas where the Afghans need improvement is how best to deal with bombs once they’re located, Staff Sgt. Brett McLamb, a North Carolina National Guard soldier from Newton Grove, N.C., said as he watched a group of Afghan engineers on a training patrol walk down a muddy road planted with various kinds of dummy bombs.
U.S. advisers fear that after the Afghan engineers begin operating on their own they’ll ignore their training and resort to previous methods, like simply cutting the wires used by insurgents to trigger the bombs and leaving the bombs in place. That lets the insurgents recover and reuse the bombs.
Or, the Americans fear, they’ll just shoot the bombs from a distance, rather than try to recover evidence that might lead to the bomb makers.
Advisers say the Afghans are good at executing missions but struggle with planning them. Paperwork to make sure parts and fuel are ordered properly often is wanting, the advisers say.
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is a common one among Afghan security forces: broken trucks, often because of a disdain for routine maintenance.
“Really, if it wasn’t for maintenance problems, they’d be pretty close to being ready right now,” said Capt. Kevin Quigley, 25, of Germantown, Md., an adviser with the 3rd Infantry Division who works with Afghan troops at Camp Eagle.
Fahim’s route clearance company is still months from finishing its training, and it shows.
During one training session recently at Camp Eagle, an Afghan engineer found a buried simulated bomb trigger, then accidentally lay atop it when dropping down to dig around it, setting off an alarm that indicated that if the bomb had been real, it would have exploded. Another trying to mark the location of a trigger dropped a marker right on top of it, setting that one off.
Still, several U.S. advisers said the Afghans will be able to do the job soon. The next phase, which will start in a couple of weeks, will be working in the field – with real bombs.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing and I think they’re definitely ready for that part,” McCully said.
As for how good the Afghans will get, McCully said the goal is not perfection, but good enough.
“Maybe that’s not the best thing in the world,” he said, “but we’re only going to be here a finite time.”
The Afghans, meanwhile, are keenly aware that the gulf between perfect and simply good can be fatal.
“If we get perfect training and all the equipment that we need, we will be successful,” said Sgt. First Class Amenullah, a soldier in Fahim’s unit. “Otherwise it will be impossible to keep doing this."