Tags: US | troops | afghan | explosives

U.S. Troops Battle Afghan Explosive Devices

Wednesday, 10 February 2010 10:19 AM

ANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Technical Sergeant Anthony Campbell Jr. left his base at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan to go on a mission with British special forces.

The 35-year-old bomb technician was a member of a U.S. Air Force Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, one of the military’s frontline bomb squads.

It was Dec. 15, and Campbell and three other men on the EOD team were helping the special forces unit to capture a suspected Taliban operative.

Campbell’s team was tasked with clearing the path to the village where the operative was located. It was considered likely that the perimeter was mined or boobytrapped so they studied the ground for command wires or buried explosives, and walked slowly.

Campbell and his unit were deployed late last year to serve on the frontlines of a new effort to counter the deadly effects of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in southern Afghanistan, and to try to stay one step ahead of the Taliban's efforts to use IEDs to cripple the troop surge and break the supply lines for the U.S. and coalition forces.

The members of these bomb disposal units, who every day live in the real life “The Hurt Locker,” are on the cutting edge of the U.S. military’s escalation of troops in Afghanistan. The success — or failure — of the surge of 30,000 troops now flowing into Afghanistan will largely depend on whether or not they can stay ahead of the Taliban.

Campbell and his EOD team led the way into the Afghan village where the suspected Taliban operative was hiding. They split into two pairs. The team leader used a metal detector to search for IEDs as Campbell covered him with his weapon.

It’s not clear what happened next; the bomb squad may have taken fire, in which case Campbell would have returned fire to protect his team. What is known is that there was an explosion. Campbell had stepped on a pressure plate IED. The Technical Sergeant was killed instantly, his team leader was seriously wounded. The other two men received less severe wounds.

Campbell was just one of the 275 U.S. and NATO troops killed in IED strikes last year in Afghanistan, where the home-made bombs now cause more than 60 percent of all casualties. So far in 2010, more than 70 percent of those U.S. and coalition troops killed in Afghanistan have been in IED attacks, at a rate of more than one per day, according to icasualties.com.

Campbell was a long time Air Force Reservist who had just started duty as a Cincinnati Police Officer two weeks before he was called up for active duty in July 2009, and deployed in the fall. He was originally slated to be stationed at a U.S. base in the United Arab Emirates, but volunteered to spend his tour in the violent southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

“He was really excited about that. He loved it,” said one of Campbell’s best friends, Chris Terrell. Terrell grew up with Campbell in northern Kentucky, and as a fellow serviceman, followed him into EOD school. He said he ribbed Campbell about being deployed to the UAE, a place that EOD techs view as a cushy post far from the frontline action.

“Some guys don’t mind going to the UAE. But Tony wasn’t that type. He always wanted something more out of life,” the 36-year-old Terrell said, chain smoking Marlboro Lights at his home in a suburban subdivision outside Cincinnati. Terrell said he and Campbell had been best friends since sixth grade.

Campbell left behind three children and a wife in Florence, Kentucky. In a letter to mourners, Campbell’s wife wrote that EOD had become “a passion for Tony, far above what he ever imagined; he wouldn't have changed a thing.”

The U.S. military declined to offer more details on the events that led to Campbell’s death. This version was relayed by Terrell, who was also one of the family friends the Campbell’s asked to speak for the family after the incident. Terrell is currently an EOD technician with the Kentucky Air National Guard, and will deploy to Afghanistan in January 2011.

At the funeral a few days before Christmas, the Air Force posthumously awarded Campbell the Bronze Star with Valor, the Purple Heart, and the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

At Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, his picture would soon join those of other EOD operators killed in the line of duty at the base of Joint Task Force Paladin South, the counter-IED unit Campbell was attached to.

“It brings it back home,” said one of Campbell’s bosses in Kandahar, US Air Force Lt. Colonel Laurie Richter, two days after his death. The experienced EOD officer’s eyes watered and voice trembled.

“You know everybody in the community and so it’s really tight knit.”

Campbell’s unit, Joint Task Force Paladin, had just opened its southern, regional headquarters (thus, Paladin-South) in Kandahar to help collect and centralize information in the battle against IEDs. Their base, which in December consisted of tents surrounded by armored vehicles at Kandahar Airfield, is getting a $2 million-facelift, complete with a concrete building to house the unit’s headquarters.

The new branch of Paladin is just one part of a new Counter-IED "surge" that the U.S. led coalition, called ISAF, for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, has initiated in southern Afghanistan. The efforts include increasing the number of troops who clear IEDs from roads to insure freedom of movement — a key element to the success of this spring’s surge. The increase will also mean more IED trainers to educate regular soldiers about dealing with IEDs. New counter IED teams, specialized in forensics and evidence collection, have begun to deploy to battalions in theater with the goal of targeting networks of bomb makers and builders.

Those efforts are badly needed. Since 2007 in Afghanistan, IED “events” have more than tripled to more than 7,228 IED incidents in 2009, which resulted in 6037 deaths and injuries, according to the U.S. military.

Officers at ISAF say IED attacks have steadily increased as insurgents have found it to be a simple, cheap and effective weapon. They kill and maim soldiers, limit the coalition’s freedom of movement, eat up valuable resources and score propaganda points for the insurgents.

The IED is now the Taliban’s and other insurgents’ weapon of choice. In a December report titled “The State of the Insurgency,” ISAF’s head of intelligence, Major General Michael Flynn, compared the IED’s ability to inflict damage and weaken the will of ISAF to that of the U.S. supplied Stinger missiles the Afghan Mujahidin used against Soviet helicopters in the 1980s.

“This is asymmetric warfare using a weapon that is of low cost, is relatively easy to emplace, relatively easy to construct and difficult to detect at times,” said U.S. Navy Commander Rick Hayes, the commander of Joint Task Force Paladin-South.

In 2009, 67 percent of all Afghanistan’s IED “events” — meaning every IED incident and discovery — occurred in the six southern provinces that make up ISAF’s Regional Command South, or RC-South, which includes Helmand and Kandahar, the two most violent provinces in the country. There are around 20 to 30 IED events per day here, according to Colonel Mark Lee, RC-South’s Counter IED Coordinator.

“We find about 60 percent that are emplaced,“ Lee said. “We have to be perfect; we have to find every IED. But the insurgents just have to be lucky and put one out there that we miss.”

Those missed IEDs mean that for the 43,000 U.S. and NATO troops deployed in RC South, it’s no longer a question of if, but when, they’re going to hit an IED.

“I’ve only been blown up once this tour,” said U.S. Army Specialist Mike McCoy, 22, who said his platoon had been hit “eight or nine times” by IEDs six months into their year-long tour with the 1-12 Infantry in Kandahar province. He was not injured in the attack.

Afghanistan’s bomb makers, like any good IED maker from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Al Qaeda in Iraq, build IEDs with readily available, cheap material to make the bombs. In Afghanistan, that material is fertilizer, specifically ammonium nitrate, the same substance Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Brigadier General Frederick Hodges, Operations Chief for RC South, estimates that 90 percent of all IEDs in southern Afghanistan are made with ammonium nitrate. The substance is usually mixed with a little fuel oil or diesel to increase explosiveness. A detonator is employed to ignite the device.

IEDs are, by definition, easy to manufacture and have been used in unconventional, or guerrilla warfare for at least a century. The first IED in modern history is generally regarded to be the metal pipe bomb that killed eight police officers and set off the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886.

That basic, effective weapon has evolved through the years to be used by small insurgent groups against regular armies. They were used by T.E. Lawrence to blow up Turkish trains in Arabia during World War I. The Vietcong used booby trapped IEDs against dismounted U.S. troops to great effect during the Vietnam War.

The British developed some of the first counter IED teams in response to Irish Republican Army attacks on troops in Northern Ireland.

Hezbollah famously killed the Israeli commander in charge of occupation forces in South Lebanon, Brigadier General Erez Gerstein, with an IED in 1999. The group also employed the devices very effectively against Israeli troops, helping lead to Israel’s withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000.

The American experience in Iraq showed that an IED can be delivered in a variety of ways. In a span of a few short years, Americans became familiar with the SVBIED (suicide vehicle borne IED, or car bomb), the HBIED (House borne IED) and bicycle, donkey and even dog-borne IEDs.

But Iraq in many ways was, and still is an urban war on highways and paved streets. Insurgents positioned roadside bombs in trash along the road, under the cement, or on the sides of overpasses and on guardrails.

Initially in Iraq, the insurgents used artillery rounds or anti-tank mines tied together. But as U.S. troops began receiving and using armored humvees, the insurgents adapted. They began building sophisticated, armor piercing “explosively formed penetrators.” The weapons needed to be manufactured in a machine shop, which led to accusations from the U.S. military that Iran was helping provide the weapons. At the same time, the insurgents began burying huge bombs in the ground to attack the soft underbelly of the U.S. military’s armored vehicles.

By May and June of 2007, the peak of the violence, there were an average 60 IED events per day in Iraq. The makeshift weapons were responsible for 83 percent of U.S. troops’ deaths.

The U.S. military’s troop surge, the widespread development of Sunni Awakening Councils and a cease-fire between the Iraqi government and Muqtada Sadr helped lessen violence soon thereafter. IED attacks against U.S. troops decrease dramatically during the next two years.

But at the same time, IED incidents in Afghanistan have increased. For the first time last year, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The simple ammonium nitrate bomb has been the number one killer of U.S. and coalition troops there.

“These are exceptionally crude but lethal devices,” said Colonel Mark Lee, Regional Command South Counter IED Branch Chief. “It’s simple to make, and they make a lot. And that’s really the challenge: the number of devices we are encountering.”

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Wednesday, 10 February 2010 10:19 AM
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