Afghanistan’s kinetic action
Taliban spreading more sophisticated explosives across contested southern region
MAIWAND DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters have turned increasingly to roadside bombs and other deadly tactics to combat U.S. soldiers and other NATO-led troops in southern Afghanistan, military officials say.
In one particularly lethal incident, a roadside bomb on Friday killed three U.S. soldiers when it struck their Humvee during a patrol in Zabul province. A day earlier, a suicide bomber killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded nine others while they were on patrol in Hutal, the district center of this hotly contested region 40 miles west of the provincial capital of Kandahar.
The attacks are part of a growing trend in which the Taliban are targeting foreign troops and Afghan civilians with more roadside bombs, suicide bombers and other "asymmetric" methods after suffering a series of defeats in battles with NATO troops, according to military officials.
"The insurgents were more or less forced to change tactics last year," said Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif, commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command-South.
"To put it simply, two years ago, you had 30 insurgents who massed and attacked ISAF," said de Kruif, in an interview last month. "And now you have 30 insurgents who are able to lay down 15 [bombs]."
The trend comes as Taliban violence is at an all-time high in Afghanistan, and as the United States prepares to send up to 30,000 additional forces to augment the 61,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops already in the country. The United States and other countries lost 294 soldiers in Afghanistan last year, the highest annual toll since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
Nearly 70 percent of the soldiers killed in southern Afghanistan last year were killed by roadside bombs or other explosions, according to ISAF figures.
Bombings, suicide attacks and assassinations have become an almost daily occurrence in Afghanistan, especially in the opium-rich south, where the Taliban now control large swaths of the countryside.
Most of the incoming U.S. forces will likely be posted in Zabul, Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the heartland of the Pashtun-led insurgency, where the fight against the Taliban is shifting, according to military officials.
While the Taliban’s use of suicide bombers in southern Afghanistan has fluctuated in recent years, their use of roadside bombs to target NATO-led troops in the region has steadily increased.
Nowhere is that trend more evident than in Maiwand district, where soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, also known as Task Force Ramrod, began operating in August. While direct firefights with the Taliban have been rare, soldiers with the task force encounter roadside bombs almost daily.
"I feel most confident in saying that this is the most heavily IEDed area in Afghanistan," said Marine Capt. Kevin Nicholson, who oversees the task force’s explosive ordnance detachment. "Basically, that is the kinetic action in this area of operations. That is how the enemy chooses to fight."
Nicholson said that more than 100 bombs have either exploded or been discovered in Maiwand since U.S. forces began operating in the area — an average of about one a day.
Even the onset of winter, traditionally a time when the Taliban regroups and rearms, has not resulted in a significant decline in activity.
"For the enemy, it’s a low-cost, low-risk way to fight," Nicholson said.
Most of the explosives used by the Taliban consist of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, artillery shells and mortar rounds. But homemade devices have also been found, including some that resemble the U.S.-made Claymore mine, an anti-personnel device that sprays a lethal mass of buckshot-sized steel balls over a wide area.
"Whatever is available that goes boom, they’ll use," Nicholson said.
As in Iraq, U.S. troops in Maiwand are encountering a wide range of detonator techniques, including command wires, radio-controlled switches and pressure plates.
"There’s really a wide spectrum of how sophisticated they are," Nicholson said. "It really depends on who is making them."
Maj. Cale Brown, executive officer for Task Force Ramrod, estimated that 60 to 70 roadside bombs have detonated in Maiwand district since U.S. troops arrived. Most have hit civilian trucks, which are frequently used to haul building materials and supplies to far-flung U.S. bases.
At least 20 U.S. military vehicles have also been hit. One soldier was killed and four others wounded when a bomb struck their Humvee in September. Soon after, Task Force Ramrod began relying more on Cougars, Buffaloes and other heavily armored vehicles designed specifically to withstand bomb blasts.
The move has been credited with saving dozens of lives.
"Most of what they’re using out there would vaporize a Humvee," Nicholson said.
Still, the Taliban’s increasing use of roadside bombs has taken a toll on U.S. and other NATO forces.
According to icasualties.org, an independent Web site that tracks U.S and allied fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, 155 U.S. troops and 139 soldiers from other countries died in Afghanistan in 2008. At least 96 of those deaths occurred in southern Afghanistan, according to ISAF figures compiled by Stars and Stripes.
According to figures from icasualties.org, which compiles its data from Pentagon press releases and media reports, nearly one-third of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan last year died in the southern region.
Many of those deaths appeared to be not included in ISAF releases because some U.S. troops, including Special Forces and police advisory teams, operate in southern Afghanistan under separate chains of command.
At least 65 of the deaths reported by ISAF in southern Afghanistan were attributed to roadside bombs or other explosions. In 14 instances, no cause of death was given. Another 35 soldiers were reported wounded by bombs or explosions.
At least half of the U.S. soldiers who died in southern Afghanistan, but were not counted in the ISAF releases, were killed by roadside bombs, according to data compiled by icasualties.org.
According to ISAF figures, at least 18 soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan in December, making it the deadliest month last year for U.S. and other foreign forces in the region. Most of those deaths were caused by roadside bombs.