February 3, 2011
By C.J. CHIVERS
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Members of the 187th Infantry Regiment during a village sweep in the in Ali Jan Kala in Ghazni Province on Feb. 1.
Late Tuesday morning, two American infantry platoons and an Afghan National Army team were driving along a dirt road through rural Ghazni Province, heading back to their company outpost after finishing an early-morning sweep of Ali Jan Kala, a village where the Taliban is strong. The American soldiers were riding in MATV armored vehicles and the Afghans were in an armored Humvee, picking their way along the road at modest speed.
The soldiers had spent the morning running through the open to reach compounds to search and driving along the edges of villages from which the Taliban fighters often fire rocket-propelled grenades at passing military vehicles. The operation now seemed all but over. The soldiers had left before breakfast. Lunch was a short drive away.
The platoons, from B Company of the Third Battalion, 187th Infantry, passed by one police post and were just short of another, near the village of Zareh Shar. As is common, they were spread out. First Platoon and the Afghan vehicle were in front. The lead vehicle in Second Platoon followed about 500 yards behind.
About 11:30 a.m., roughly 25 minutes shy of reaching the company outpost in Band-e Sardeh, Second Lt. Christopher Farmer, the platoon leader of Second Platoon, radioed the lead vehicles with a report: A fire was burning on the section of road that First Platoon’s trucks had passed over a minute or so before.
Burning dirt roads are not an ordinary thing. Lieutenant Farmer relayed his suspicion that all of the lead trucks had just rolled over a hidden bomb, which, somehow, had failed to explode. Inside the last vehicle in Second Platoon’s column, soldiers exchanged knowing glances and nods. It is not every day that a man drives harmlessly over a buried bomb.
Two themes that this blog has emphasized repeatedly are the value of luck in a combat zone, and an assessment of the Taliban that distinguishes between the movement’s strong political and tactical skills and its fighters’ often poor technical skills. If there is a common pattern in Afghan firefights, it is this: Many Taliban fighters choose when and where to fight very well, and are adept at organizing complex ambushes and making quick exits from a fight. But their shooting skills are routinely abysmal, for many reasons, (see earlier posts), a fact for which which countless soldiers and Marines are grateful. But what of their bombs?
Since 2008, as the Taliban has used more and more makeshift bombs in the fight against American and Afghan government patrols, the dangers for soldiers and police officers in Afghanistan have climbed sharply. Many areas of the countryside frequented by patrols are now laced with hidden traps, like the buried anti-personnel landmine that nearly killed Joao Silva last October. These improvised bombs (and occasional conventional landmines), set along roads, trails and canals, are the leading cause of wounds and deaths to American troops. More than 3,600 American troops were wounded by explosive devices in Afghanistan last year, at least 265 of them fatally, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. And the Afghan tallies, to the extent that they are available, indicate that the toll on Afghan policemen, soldiers and civilians was much higher.
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Villagers in Ali Jan Kala in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province watch as members of the 187th Infantry Regiment conduct a sweep of the area.
Hidden improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, as the military calls them, fall into a two rough categories: those that are activated by the victim, via a pressure plate or other device that closes an electric circuit and explodes the bomb, and those that activated remotely, typically by someone who is within sight of the bomb and initiates the explosion via a switch. Both types of bombs are generally simple in construction. But there are many opportunities to get a bomb’s design or emplacement wrong. And there are ample accounts of mistakes by Taliban bomb-makers and those who collaborate with them that have rendered their lethal designs ineffective. Almost exactly a year ago, to cite one account, Tyler Hicks and I covered a patrol in Helmand Province in which a Marine stepped on a bomb’s pressure plate, but the blasting cap it triggered failed to ignite the larger bomb to which it was attached.
Many soldiers who have spent a long time in the field in Afghanistan’s more dangerous provinces can share similar stories — of bombs that were detonated too early or too late, or did not detonate at all. There is even a special breed of story that soldiers like most: of bombs that flashed into action unexpectedly, exploding and killing the men who were making, carrying or emplacing them. These tales, whether of a soldier’s close call or of a Taliban bomber killed by mishap along a lonely road, form some of the underground narratives — variously hair-raising and celebratory — of a war in its 11th year.
That is not to play down the dangers. The American military has invested heavily in many programs to reduce the risks and effects of these weapons. And in many ways, the war today, walk by walk and drive by drive, feels significantly different than it did even two years ago. In 2008, patrols often set out with only moderate worries about bombs or mines. Today is different. The troops have stronger and more intelligently designed armored vehicles, more metal detectors, greater access to Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams and a visibly different state of alertness to the potential dangers in culverts, potholes or disturbed soil, especially in places soldiers have passed before. In some units, bomb-sniffing dogs are a common sight. An entire mentality has shifted. As more soldiers have been killed or gravely wounded by these hidden bombs, and as more accounts of double- and triple-amputees circulate through the ranks, patrols have often assumed a foreboding air.
In the face of this, many infantry units have maintained a high tempo, deducing in counterintuitive fashion that the more time troops spend patrolling, the safer they actually are. Constant patrolling, with units leaving and returning at different times each day, makes it more difficult and risky for the Taliban to emplace bombs, and keeps the fighting- and bomb-making cells guessing as to where the patrols and sweeps will be next. It is when a unit slows down, many infantry officers and noncommissioned officers say, that dangers multiply.
Capt. Aaron T. Schwengler, B Company’s commander, was traveling in the lead part of the convoy on Tuesday. His was one of seven vehicles that had passed over the bomb. He gave an order: call a disposal team and have them inspect the site that was on fire, with an eye to removing the bomb and collecting any evidence it might contain.
Soon the two platoons had picked up the team and taken them to the site. The examination immediately confirmed the suspicions — all of Second Platoon’s trucks had passed over a dud. After the team destroyed the device, the examination showed that just how lucky the soldiers had been: the bomb had been powerful, an antipersonnel landmine connected to roughly 40 pounds of homemade explosives.
For the soldiers of B Company, the bomb that did not explode was the odd turn in a day when they were worried over another set of dangers. The village of Ali Jan Kala, which they had swept on foot, lies in a cluster of farming villages on the high steppe, elevation roughly 7,000 feet. Protected by villages to the north, an early warning system of spotters and signalers and a deep canal to the south and east that American vehicles cannot cross, it is difficult for American and Afghan soldiers to approach over land. It is, in military terms, a small safe haven for the Taliban, and only a few miles from two American bases. The soldiers of B Company have fought here before, and a variety of intelligence has shown them that the Taliban fighters often gather in Ali Jan Kala, apparently feeling secure.
Early Monday night, in a briefing for the soldiers readying for the sweep, the company had described the village in clear terms. If the Taliban were to have a forward operating base, said First Lt. Brady Hassell, who leads First Platoon, this would be it. The company’s operational maps said it all. On them, Ali Jan Kala was given a nickname: Objective Smashmouth.
And so Tuesday morning’s operation had initially been intense. The soldiers drove north from their outpost, looped south and approached the village from the fields. As they drew near the canal, a burst of tracer fire rose from the village, apparently as Taliban fighters signaled to each other that B Company was rushing. The trucks stopped at the edge of the canal, which was dry. With the turret gunners covering them, a mix of Afghan and American soldiers climbed out and ran across the open by bounds. They sprinted down the steep side of the canal, then up the opposite side and continued on, in the open the entire way. A few men would drop, peer down their rifle sights and cover the approach as others ran. Then the running soldiers would drop, and the others would stand and run past them.
Soon they were within the first buildings, breathing heavily in the thin air, without a shot fired. The Taliban had left before the soldiers arrived.
Over the next two or three hours, the company searched a few compounds, a nearby gully and several pump houses, producing a common result: a shortage of young men, and a collection of boys and older Afghan villagers insisting they did not know the Taliban. One team found five military rifle rounds in a pump house out in the adjacent fields.
Captain Schwengler spoke with villagers who had gathered at a mosque. He urged them to help, noting that the Afghan and American soldiers had not entered many of the homes. And he warned the small crowd not to let the Taliban fighters shoot at the company as it turned and moved away, saying that if the company was fired upon, he would double back and search the entire village top-to-bottom.
“I want to respect you guys,” he said. “But you need to respect us and not allow the Taliban to shoot at us.”
With a light snow falling, the company collapsed, running back to its vehicles in small teams across the open again. A short while later, it rolled over the bomb that did not explode.
Now at the end of a year-long tour in Afghanistan, Captain Schwengler said that there is no explanation for this kind of luck. Twenty-five of his soldiers have been wounded in action in Ghazni Province, he said. It could have been much worse.
In November, he said, about two kilometers away, three MATVs rolled over a similar I.E.D. before the crew in the fourth vehicle noticed that the ground was smoking. The search found a dud much like the one the vehicles passed over on Tuesday.
Then he made a partial list of soldiers who had been hit by bullets in ways that did not do them permanent harm. One soldier was hit twice on the helmet, another was hit in a water bottle on his chest, a third was hit in the camera in a cargo pocket at his hip, and a fourth was hit on his first-aid kit. A fifth had a burst of bullets pass by him, tearing his pant legs but leaving only a burn mark on his calf, where the passing round had grazed him.
“If you talk about luck, we have been probably the luckiest company out here,” the captain said. Then he knocked on the wooden arm of the couch in his office. B Company still has a week left in Afghanistan. All of its platoons patrol each day.
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