FORWARD OPERATING BASE SWEENEY, Afghanistan — When U.S. troops go out on patrol here, they are protected by the heavily armored hulls of their Stryker vehicles.
Their Afghan counterparts are far more vulnerable to hidden bombs, riding in unarmored trucks or on motorcycles.
As U.S. troops pull back and take on a largely advisory role, the Afghan National Army is taking the lead on such patrols.
“They have small route clearance packages, which consist of motorcycles out front of the convoy, followed by the ranger trucks,” said Capt. Hector Rueda of Combined Task Force Raider, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
The lighter motorcycles are less likely to detonate pressure-plated improvised explosive devices, set to detonate as heavier vehicles roll across them. But they are no match for remote-controlled IEDs.
With the departure of U.S. troops and their heavy equipment, the Afghans will be forced to fight this IED war with very limited resources.
“They have some mine detectors, however, most of those are not working. So, that’s one of the biggest challenges that they have,” Rueda said.
According to NATO, the IEDs are the deadliest weapon in the insurgents’ arsenal, accounting for more than half of all NATO casualties in the 11-year war.
“They do work with their explosive ordnance disposal teams and route clearance companies, ... but for the most part they are working with pretty primitive defeat techniques,” said Lt. Colonel Charles Lombardo, the Squadron Commander of 2nd Battalion, 1st Cavalry Regiment working at FOB Sweeney in Zabul province before the American troops pulled out April 1.
The Afghans have proven to be good spotters though, Lombardo said. They know the terrain, and are well trained at pointing out the warning signs of an IED.
On a three-day resupply mission south of FOB Sweeney in late March, the Afghan soldiers spotted eight IEDs. A U.S. Stryker vehicle hit one, resulting in very minor injuries.
The U.S. explosive ordnance team helped defuse the other bombs. But the Afghans don’t have that capability.
“If an IED blows up one of our trucks, it’s going to be in pieces,” said Major Janbaz, operations officer for the 1st Kandak Division of the Afghan National Army, based at FOB Sweeney.
Janbaz only has two working Humvees — armored, but less resistant to IEDs. The others have broken down or have been destroyed in IED attacks.
The start of this year’s fighting season in Zabul Province has shown that the Taliban will not be letting up on their IED strategy.
In the two weeks leading up to the U.S. departure, there were several IED casualties. One Afghan police officer was killed at a checkpoint near the base by an IED that exploded as he tried to defuse it. Two civilian women were severely injured when their vehicle hit an IED while driving in the surrounding district, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
And, according to the Afghan army, a man was killed while trying to make an IED in a village near the base. Another man and woman were injured in the same incident.
“They [the soldiers] can find the IEDs, but they don’t have the capabilities to detonate them, because their explosive ordnance team is not assigned to this unit,” Rueda said.
Janbaz worried about his forces after the Americans leave.
“I don’t know who’s going to help us in the future,” Janbaz said. “If nobody helps us, I have to take our injured guys to another province with a convoy. On that convoy, maybe five more guys will get injured or die from IED. It’s very dangerous.”