As U.S. forces sent to Afghanistan as part of President Obama's "surge" go on the offensive, they are encountering record numbers of improvised explosive devices -- the roadside bombs, homemade land mines, and booby traps known as IEDs. After the usual lull in fighting imposed by Afghanistan's harsh winter, the threat rose sharply this spring.
Every measure of the danger has neared or exceeded the records set last August, according to data provided to National Journal by the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization, dubbed JIEDDO. From the last (relatively) quiet month, February, through the end of May, the number of U.S. and allied troops killed by IEDs per month rose 13 percent; the number wounded was up 34 percent. Explosions that succeeded in inflicting casualties jumped by 40 percent; and the total number of IEDs encountered, including those that detonated harmlessly or were found and neutralized, increased by 43 percent to an unprecedented 1,128 in May -- that's more than 36 a day.
"The IED is a condition of our workplace," said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, the Iraq veteran who heads JIEDDO, in a conversation with National Journal. Land mines have been around a long time, but in conventional warfare -- when U.S. forces broke through Iraqi lines during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example -- "we would breach a minefield and then we would be into our mission. Today, the IED exists throughout the day and throughout our entire battle space," he said. "We don't have a choice of not operating in it, so it's our challenge to figure out how to adapt."
The JIEDDO data provide some hopeful signs that U.S. forces are adapting successfully. Despite the unprecedented threat from IEDs in Afghanistan, the number of injuries per month remains below last year's record. Troops find most IEDs before they can do harm (50 to 60 percent of those encountered per month). Many more (30 to 40 percent) go off without inflicting any harm on U.S. or allied troops. Only about 10 percent of IEDs succeed in killing or injuring U.S. or allied troops. The best sign is that the average number of U.S. and allied injuries or deaths per incident has dropped steadily, from a peak of three in September to just over two in May. (Available data on Afghan casualties are less detailed but in May alone, IEDs killed 126 Afghan soldiers, police, and government officials.)
That decrease in the devices' effectiveness is in large part a testimony to the military's wider use of heavier armor. Many units in Afghanistan now go out of the gate only in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles. "When we first got there, we had the Humvees that were up-armored," said Lt. Col. Kirk Whitson of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. "But quickly, within a month of being there -- we were there for 13 months -- we were able to get MRAPs.... An IED will go off, it'll blow that thing to shreds. It'll blow the axles off; it'll blow the wheels off; it'll blow everything off; and all that's left is that little [crew] capsule, and those soldiers will walk out of the back of that thing with a headache. And that's it." (That said, sometimes the headache is a symptom of a traumatic brain injury whose effects may last a lifetime.)
"There's no doubt that the MRAP... has saved a lot of lives," Oates said. Investments in armor protection and also in jamming remote-controlled detonators have paid off. But much-hyped drone technology has been disappointing. "The notion that you can fly something over the Earth's surface and identify IEDs has not panned out," he said. "We're still finding only about 50 percent of the IEDs, and we find the vast majority of those with individual soldiers.... The greatest return on investment is in training our soldiers so they anticipate these IEDs, so they know how to detect them and know how to survive them."
The human eye, not high technology, remains the best detector of IEDs. "The technology that the Army has come out with has totally improved," said Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Barksdale, a veteran combat engineer who teaches a route clearance and reconnaissance course at the Army's combat engineer school at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. "But when you get down to it, in country, most of the IEDs that are found are found with the bare eye."
That lack of high-tech silver bullets makes hunting IEDs a labor-intensive and time-consuming business. "Route clearance" is the official term for driving slowly down the road in a convoy of MRAPs and other specialized vehicles, with robots ready to inspect potential IEDs, jammers activated to disable remote detonators, and eyes open for slight cues: a poorly hidden detonator cable, a piece of garbage by the road, a patch of ground disturbed by recent digging.
"It's dangerous and it's tedious, yes," said Sgt. Robert Price, a combat engineer at Fort Leonard Wood. "But [when] you might have found something, you get that burst of energy and adrenaline." About 90 percent of the time, he went on, the clues turn out to be nothing. The 10 percent is dangerous enough, however: Price lost his right leg below the knee in Iraq and now walks -- and runs, and plays basketball with his son -- on a state-of-the-art prosthetic.
Compared with Iraq, where Price served, Afghanistan poses an additional difficulty -- 77 percent of the roads are unpaved, which makes it much easier for foes to bury the mines and pat down the evidence. Iraqi insurgents had to develop techniques for melting asphalt and concealing explosives in fake concrete curbs; Taliban fighters just need a shovel.
Hidden explosives on dirt roads are the bane of U.S. logistics convoys in Afghanistan. Even IEDs that troops detect and disarm -- the majority -- cause chronic delays. "We used to drive down to Kandahar, which on a good day would take an hour and a half, [but] on a bad day would take several hours, depending on how many IEDs there were," said Andrew Torelli, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who led a provincial reconstruction team in Zabul province. "It wasn't efficient." Torelli's unit eventually resorted to helicopters for small, routine deliveries; but bulk supplies and large items -- new vehicles to replace those blown up, for instance -- are stuck on the roads.
For Whitson's unit, a supply run from one base to the next could take two days because of poor roads, long distances, and the need to crawl along behind the route clearance units. "You can't afford to get off the path that they've cleared," Whitson said. "So the limiting factor was really the availability of those route clearance [teams].... Those guys were superstars that were out there clearing those routes," he said, but "there weren't enough" of them.
The military doesn't have sufficient bomb squads to devote to this work. Training an apprentice technician to do explosives ordnance disposal takes 10 months; training a team leader takes years. Route clearance has become an increasingly all-consuming mission for the Army's combat engineers. In conventional warfare, sappers would blow up bridges and bunkers, dismantle barbed wire and roadblocks, and clear safe paths through minefields; in Afghanistan and Iraq, that counter-mine mission has morphed into a constant battle against IEDs.
Adapting to those demands without sacrificing the full range of their combat skills is a difficult balance for the engineers, as it is for the rest of the Army. "If I trained everybody just for the current fight, we would not have been able to do what we did in Haiti [for example]," said Brig. Gen. Bryan Watson, commandant of the engineer school at Fort Leonard Wood. "The approach right now is that most of our counter-IED training occurs just prior to deployment, in other words, when a unit is getting ready for its mission [to Iraq or Afghanistan]. But if we think that IEDs are going to be an enduring part of warfare, should we move some of that training into our institutional training base?"
Oates went further: "As soon as there's a complete awareness of the IED, a complete inclusion of the IED in training, we're going to get a lot better at this," he said. "We're a lot further along than we were a number of years ago, but I don't think we've fully institutionalized it yet."
Both officers agreed that the IED is "here to stay," in Watson's words. The homemade devices have been used in Russia, Spain, and Latin America, Oates noted. Even the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 would now be classified as an IED, because Timothy McVeigh homebrewed his explosive out of fertilizer. "The IED is now proliferating throughout the rest of the world," Oates said. "It's an easy, inexpensive, effective weapons system."
This article appears in the June 26, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.