Finding themselves targeted, Afghans train their own on avoiding IEDs
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — First Lt. Abdul Halim knows that defeating the enemy means beating one of its most insidious weapons, the roadside bomb.
Like many Afghans in this border province, Halim has seen the devastation the devices inflict on soldiers, civilians and vehicles. Often improvised from homemade materials and placed in roadways to strike convoys, or set along roadsides to injure dismounted soldiers, the bombs are a daily peril. And, increasingly, they seem designed to target the unarmored vehicles of the Afghan forces, rather than the heavier U.S. vehicles.
Especially vulnerable are the pickup trucks the Afghan National Army relies on for much of its transportation. Even with an apparent decline in insurgent violence here, casualties from the bombs continue.
“Right now, the enemy isn’t doing face-to-face fighting,” Halim said. “They’re using mines.”
With the help of U.S. Army advisers, Halim, a former infantry platoon leader, is training fellow soldiers to beat the weapons. He began teaching his brigade’s first counter-IED class earlier this month, a six-week course aimed at educating a pair of platoons on how to recognize and disable the devices.
Encouraging Afghans to train Afghans is a central peg in the growing work of U.S. advisers here as NATO approaches the end of its combat role.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” said 1st Lt. Alex Smith of the 3rd Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, a route clearance mentor at Afghan base Camp Parsa. “And he’s got more — I don’t know if you’d say real-world experience — but more practical experience than we would.”
Smith and his fellow mentors have access to leadership of Halim’s unit, the route clearance company of the 1st Brigade, 203rd Corps, while other U.S. advisers have the ear of the brigade commander, who has direct authority over the company.
When mentors saw an opportunity in October to create a counter-IED training ground from former basic training fields at Parsa, they encouraged the company to push the idea, said Capt. Michael Wilda, leader of the route clearance mentor group.
Like other soldiers working with Afghans here, Wilda says he can’t order his counterparts to do anything, but must hope they are receptive to the group’s ideas.
“We took one of our concepts and pitched it to them, and it was something they liked and wanted to do,” he said.
Earlier this week, Halim guided the platoons through part of the new lane, a stretch of brown, flat earth that concealed multiple mock IEDs. The mentors stood to the side.
Halim showed soldiers how to conduct a dismounted patrol for the devices, demonstrated how to mark off a suspected site and reminded them not to blindly cross culverts. He waited to see if they would spot the thin, copper command wire that stretched across their path.
He taught the men to exit a vehicle when they spot a potential IED, and he warned them to always look for a secondary bomb — often placed near a more visible device.
“Do it very carefully,” he warned a soldier approaching a buried object on the lane. “Walk around like there could be other mines.”
Advisers say such lessons are critical as coalition forces continue to scale back their operations in anticipation of the 2014 withdrawal of most Western forces, and as the ANA and other Afghan security forces conduct more solo patrols.
The IEDs in this region are taking a heavier toll on Afghan convoys than on armored coalition vehicles. U.S. soldiers say they are seeing more bombs that are just capable of destroying a pickup truck, but unlikely to wreck an armored U.S. truck.
“My opinion on it is, it’s definitely aimed at (Afghan National Security Forces),” Smith said. “They know our trucks are up-armored.”
The Afghan route clearance company now escorts most supply convoys leaving Parsa, according to Wilda, and it is the quick response force for discovered IEDs in the brigade’s footprint.
The two platoons being trained at the course belong to two of the brigade’s battalions, both of which lack their own route clearance units. The creation of the platoons came by order of the corps commander, according to Maj. Noor Mohammad, executive officer for one of the battalions, the 6th Kandak.
Second Lt. Wali Hazrit, a machine gun platoon leader from the 6th Kandak, stationed at an outpost called Wilderness, said he knew several soldiers injured or killed by bombs while riding in pickup trucks.
“The mission we have over there in Wilderness is very dangerous,” he said. “We often find mines there. The RCC is very busy, but if we can learn how, we can find and defuse the mines ourselves.”
As with many Afghan units being advised by coalition soldiers, the success of Hazrit’s platoon, as well as Halim’s course, will depend in part on the attention and equipment they receive from the brigade after U.S. advisers are gone.
Lines of authority in the unit are often confusing or unheeded. Halim, for example, complained the brigade commander had not responded to his repeated requests for equipment for the class. Wilda said the route clearance commander, who was on leave, needed to make those requests.
Re-tasking Hazrit’s platoon as a route clearance unit is also problematic for the battalion, Mohammad said. He has been promised a replacement platoon, he said.
Halim hopes he and the RCC will train more units in counter-IED in the future.
Will the unit be able to operate when the mentors are gone?
“Inshallah,” he said — God willing — ”we will do it.”