QALAT, Afghanistan -- Improvised bombs have killed more American troops in Afghanistan than anything else since the war here began 11 years ago, and they’ll remain a favored insurgent weapon against Afghan soldiers, police and civilians after U.S. forces end their combat mission next year.
That’s why U.S. advisers across Afghanistan are rushing to train hundreds of Afghan engineers to take over the crucial but often unsung task of running routine patrols to sweep the roads of bombs before large numbers of American soldiers start leaving this fall.
“Our conflict right now with the Taliban is only IEDs (improvised explosive devices), because they can’t fight us any other way, so to protect our troops we really need to be good at defeating bombs," said Capt. Muhammed Fahim, who commands one of the front-line Afghan engineer units that will perform “route clearance,” as the job is called.
Fahim’s, unit, part of the 2nd Brigade of the Afghan 205th Corps, works out of Camp Eagle, a major Afghan army base in Zabul province in the restive southeast corner of the country. They’ve already done some independent operations on their own but need more training. He says their skills now are about 40 percent of what they will need to operate on their own, but that within a few months they’ll be ready.
U.S. advisers are helping train two dozen such Afghan units, each with about 80 soldiers. Several units with other roles also are being trained in the job.
Half of the 24 of the Afghan route clearance companies already are running independent operations, four more will be by the end of March, and the rest should be ready in the next three months, said Lt. Col. Torrey DiCiro, who helps oversee Afghan army training for a multi-service task force led by the 555th Engineer Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
The 555th’s task force is responsible for most of the current route clearing in Afghanistan. It’s training Afghan engineer units not only in that specialty but also in more traditional military engineering roles such as building bases, bridges and roads. The task force also is responsible for tearing down U.S. and NATO bases, or retooling them for handover to the Afghans as the coalition troops begin their drawdown.
The Afghan engineers face challenges the Americans don’t. For one, the Afghans won’t have the equipment the Americans do – massive bomb-resistant trucks and high-technology aids, such as ground-piercing radar or television cameras on giant arms to peer into culverts under roads, a popular place to plant large bombs.
They’ll also do the work despite an anemic supply chain and a disdain for maintenance and repair that often leaves them short of vehicles.
What they do have, their U.S. advisers say, is a kind of IED street smarts, a better chance at coaxing information from local residents, and the guts to hunt mines and bombs on foot with their eyes and simple metal detectors.
Several U.S. soldiers helping train the Afghans say those factors actually make the Afghans better at finding IEDs than their U.S. and NATO counterparts.
“The differences are pretty big in the way we’re equipped, but they do it all by eye and they can really pick out stuff,” said Sgt. Michael McCully of Pensacola, Fla., who is with the 870th Engineer Company of the Florida National Guard. The 870th and a sister unit, the Laurinburg, N.C.-based 151st Engineer Company of the North Carolina National Guard, clears bombs in Zabul province.