KABUL — U.S. and coalition forces have spent billions of dollars training and equipping Afghan security forces. But despite that, they're still struggling to get Afghans to stand up to their most persistent foe: improvised explosive devices.
Now, the U.S.-led coalition is conducting a "mini-surge" of trainers and equipment to combat the lethal IEDs, which range from pipe bombs to powerful explosives that can blow trailer-size craters into roads.
The coalition's efforts have run into complications, ranging from the high Afghan illiteracy rate to the slow distribution of protective gear. Above all, the plans for training Afghan soldiers have been jolted by President Hamid Karzai's resistance to signing a bilateral security agreement that would permit a residual U.S. military force to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Coalition commanders are now racing to complete a task that analysts say should have been done far sooner.
"Already, there is a bigger training gap to fill than we saw in Iraq, and it's getting started later," said James M. Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and former commander of the NATO training mission for the Iraqi security forces.
Maj. Gen. Dean Milner, a Canadian who oversees the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, said the IED training program had not been an earlier priority because of the strain associated with recruiting and housing the 183,000-member Afghan National Army.
"There are a lot of things needed to build an army," Milner said.
Though generally not as sophisticated as the military-grade explosives used against U.S. forces during the Iraq war, the Afghan bombs — made of cans, barrels and bags filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel — are responsible for a sharp increase in the number of Afghan dead and wounded.
Afghan military officials say 80 percent of the army's casualties are now caused by IEDs. While the Afghan government doesn't release annual casualty figures from the conflict with the Taliban, U.S. military statistics show 1,163 Afghan soldiers were killed last year and more than 6,000 were wounded, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. The death toll from IEDs for the 151,000-member Afghan police is believed to be even higher.
The IEDs are also increasingly killing civilians. A recent U.N. report documented 962 civilian deaths and nearly 2,000 injuries from improvised bombs last year, a 14 percent increase over 2012. One in three civilian deaths in Afghanistan is now caused by an explosive device, the U.N. report said.
After U.S. military commanders were stunned by the effectiveness of insurgents' IEDs in Iraq, they developed new armored vehicles and stressed the importance of bomb detection and disposal.
Afghan soldiers, however, often travel in lightly armored Humvees, while Afghan police patrol in Ford Ranger pickup trucks. Afghan commanders say that, despite the recent infusion of equipment, they also lack robots, protective suits, jammers and night-vision goggles for their soldiers.
With the Afghan army still lagging in explosives experts, Afghan troops often resort to jerry-rigged tactics to locate and defuse IEDs, officials say.
"They have a bit of a cowboy attitude, like our own troops would in learning a new process," U.S. Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, the Joint Command deputy chief of staff engineer for the coalition, said in a recent interview.
Caroline Kennedy, director of the Centre for Security Studies at the University of Hull in England, said coalition counter-IED training lagged because coalition forces were "preoccupied" with the threats facing their own troops earlier in the Afghan war.
In 2010, during the height of the U.S.-led "surge," 368 coalition soldiers were killed by IEDs, according to iCasualities.org. Coalition casualties from the explosive devices have dramatically decreased in recent years as Afghans took control of most security operations
"I don't think it was a deliberate omission; I think [the coalition] was just struggling hard to make sense of the new battlefield," Kennedy said. Now, she said, the coalition "recognizes in very clear terms what needs to be done to prepare" Afghan forces.
The mini-surge focused on IEDs began last fall. At the time, coalition commanders were especially concerned that there could be a spike in attacks because of the upcoming national elections and the planned withdrawal of most remaining coalition troops.
In October, dozens of U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal specialists were sent to Afghanistan to help train its military. Their arrival coincided with the delivery of 20,000 pieces of equipment to the Afghan military, including hand-held mine detectors, armored tactical vehicles, probes and bomb disposal suits, Milner said. Most of it was paid for by the U.S. government.
Milner said much of the equipment was ordered years ago, but only arrived in Afghanistan last summer. It had been delayed by U.S. and international laws governing weapons sales, as well as the difficulties associated with safely transporting armored material through Afghanistan, he and other coalition officials said.
In January, a coalition-funded counter-IED school opened in Kabul for Afghan police, complementing a German-supported training school for the Afghan military in northern Afghanistan. With help from the U.S. Army and contractors, the number of students in explosives training courses tripled over the winter at Camp Shaheen, an Afghan base on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif.
But while the U.S.-run course began with 83 students, it ended in mid-February with about 35 graduating.
The high dropout and failure rates were partially attributed to Afghanistan's low literacy rate — about 50 percent for men — and the challenge in getting soldiers to comprehend basic science and math. Some of the students also left the program upon realizing the danger involved in defusing IEDs.
The U.S. military trainers also ran into difficulty finding translators skilled enough to render words such as "blasting cap" and "detonator" into Dari and Pashto.
Still, over the past six months, the coalition has helped the Afghan army and police establish 327 explosive ordnance teams, Milner said. Afghan forces currently defuse 50 to 85 IEDs per day, said Gen. M. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
But Auliya Atrafi, a deputy district governor of the Nad Ali area of Helmand province, estimates there are thousands of IEDs just in his community. And the soldiers who have been trained to detect the devices are increasingly being targeted by the Taliban, who rig bombs to explode while they are being dismantled, he said.
At the military hospital at Camp Shaheen, not far from where the counter-IED training was held, the toll of the bombs was evident. In one room of the new hospital, half a dozen soldiers and police officers were in bed recovering from injuries sustained in IED attacks.
Sharif Udin, a 25-year-old police officer, said he barely remembers what happened when the explosive device blew up beneath his vehicle last month.
"It just went off," he said. The explosion killed his colleague and shattered the bones in his legs. "There was nothing we could do."