Friday, October 2, 2009

US Marines face Taliban IED scourge

During an agonisingly slow rumble in convoys through the Bhuji Bhast Pass in southern Afghanistan, US Marines in armoured vehicles are braced for another explosion. The only accessible route between military bases in Golestan village and Delaram city 36 kilometres (22 miles) away is littered with deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Taliban's weapon of choice.

"It's the worst, scariest place in the world," said Air Force bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant Daniel Sepsey, of the pass in western Farah province. "We're fighting essentially a minefield that has brought the most expensive military to its knees," he told. The IED has become the pivot on which the war in Afghanistan is turning. The Taliban have deployed the bombs -- home-made, remote-controlled, almost impossible to detect -- to devastating effect as their insurgency against the Kabul government and its international supporters has escalated in recent months.

While the targets are purportedly the 100,000 troops fighting under US and NATO control to eradicate the Taliban, civilians are not spared. On Tuesday, 30 Afghans were killed and another 39 wounded when a crowded bus hit an IED on the road to the troubled southern city of Kandahar, where the Taliban have long held influence. The dead included 10 children and seven women, authorities said.

The fatal explosion brought the insurgency's civilian death toll to 1,500 since the start of 2009, about 40 percent of whom were killed by IEDs, UN figures show. While Kandahar is a Taliban stronghold and has seen some of the worst violence in the militants' battle against Western and Afghan troops, Farah province is fast catching up. The Bhuji Bhast is effectively a Taliban corridor, mined from one end to the other and lined with villages that are hostile to the Western troop presence.

Yet while no Marines have died along the pass, villagers have not been so lucky, with at least nine killed and another nine injured since May. For those who survive the bombs, injuries range from mild concussion to loss of limbs and worse. Four Afghan men were killed and another two injured last week when their van hit an IED just north of the Bhuji Bhast near their homes in Gund, a village known to be hostile to the Marines.

Marines 2/3 Battalion Company commander Francisco Xavier Zavala took the bodies back to village elders, and "told them we have come to Afghanistan to help villages like theirs, but we are spending a lot of our time fighting against IEDs and we need their help." Experts say IEDs are cheap and easy to put together. Rigged to timers or remote controls, they can be detonated when vehicles drive over pressure plates or linked into a chain of bombs to cause maximum damage.

While international forces have tried to find ways to defray the IED threat, the Taliban has changed tactics, soldiers say. As vehicle armour becomes heavier, the bombs get bigger, and as international forces become more adept at sweeping roads, the Taliban use wooden pressure plates to thwart metal detectors. Since convoys must literally inch their way along mined roads, they become sitting ducks for ambush.

"It's set up for failure. They can easily set you up for an ambush. They'll see you're disabled (after an explosion) and start shooting at you," said bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant Andrew Smith. UN figures show that in the first seven months of this year, IED incidents rose dramatically to an average of more than eight per day across Afghanistan, 60 percent higher than the same period in 2008.

Across more than 9,000 square miles (23,000 square kilometres) of southern Afghanistan patrolled by troops from the 2/3 Battalion since May, seven Marines have been killed and 78 wounded by IEDs, and 15 percent of those injured were hit along the Bhuji Bhast Pass.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday it is shipping new armored vehicles to Afghanistan to help counter the lethal threat posed by roadside bombs. The first seven of a new type of all-terrain vehicles, known as M-ATVs, will be delivered to Afghanistan overnight, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters. The vehicles are modified versions of the heavily-armored MRAP vehicles that were credited with providing better protection for US forces in Iraq. The new models, manufactured by Oshkosh Corporation, are lighter and designed to be driven off roads and over mountainous terrain found in Afghanistan.

An ambitious production schedule calls for at least 6,644 of the vehicles to be delivered over the next year, Morrell said. "These new vehicles are urgently needed because improvised explosive devices are claiming the lives of more US and coalition forces in Afghanistan than ever before," Morrell said. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become the weapon of choice for Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, and the US military says most casualties are caused by the homemade bombs. A US soldier serving with the NATO-led force in Afghanistan was killed on Wednesday in the eastern province of Khost when the vehicle he was travelling in struck a roadside bomb, coalition and local authorities said.


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