IEDs lurk as biggest threat in U.S.-led Afghan offensive

A soldier used a metal detector to probe for hidden IEDs
A soldier used a metal detector to probe for hidden IEDs Tom Pennington / Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT

KABUL, Afghanistan — Most of the bombs planted by retreating Taliban fighters around the town of Marjah, the focus of the current U.S.-led military offensive in southern Afghanistan, remain hidden threats to soldiers and civilians, military officers and Afghan officials said Wednesday.

"It is very concerning that only a small percent of the IEDs have been found . . . this is a very dangerous period of time," said a senior official with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is a risk to soldiers of course, but also a risk to civilians."

Western intelligence officers said they think the Taliban planted hundreds of improvised explosive devices in and around Marjah, in the southern province of Helmand, ahead of an operation that the U.S. and its allies publicized weeks in advance.

Taliban resistance around Marjah has been fierce at times, but sporadic with prolonged firefights. The center of the town, where there was a symbolic flag-raising ceremony Wednesday, has been secured, but its outskirts and the surrounding villages are littered with the bombs, which make progress slow.

Five days into the onslaught, IEDs are the main danger to Operation Moshtarak ("together"), an effort to showcase the new American strategy for clearing the Taliban out of populated areas, securing them and bringing in Afghan government officials and economic assistance.

The ISAF official said that the IEDs would make civilians feel unsafe. The Taliban have buried the explosives in the banks of the area's network of irrigation canals, which were built with U.S. aid money in the 1950s.

The Taliban also have been experimenting with non-metallic IEDs, which are harder to detect, though so far they haven't mastered the technology, the ISAF official said.

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said earlier this week that Marjah had the most extensive network of IED defenses that the Taliban has ever constructed.

"Mining is significant in areas, and the combined force must be very deliberate in its movement in order to minimize local Afghan and combined force casualties," ISAF said in a statement Wednesday.

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, told a news conference in the provincial capital Wednesday that "every hour we're clearing mines," noting that controlled explosions have damaged the roads. IEDs have claimed the lives of at least two of the four international troops who've been killed so far, according to an ISAF spokesman.

Mangal presided over the raising of the Afghan flag in the Marjah bazaar. Marine Cpl. Matthew Ellis of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, told reporters at the scene: "It was a lot easier than they were saying it was going to be, with ANA (Afghan National Army) and Marines working together, we have been going pretty fast."

"The insurgents are tactically adept, have resilience and are cunning," ISAF said in its statement: "In the Marjah area, the ANSF (Afghan special forces) and U.S. Marines saw sustained but less frequent insurgent activity today, experiencing limited small-scale attacks."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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