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In complex Afghan battle, bombs a big threat

The U.S. forces' enemy is almost invisible in parts of this lush valley in southern Afghanistan. It comes not as gunmen but as bombs planted on footpaths and hidden under bridges.
Image: US soldier on patrol in Arghandab Valley
United States soldier Lt. Ross Weinshanker, from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, patrols past a flock of sheep in the village of Pir-e-Paymal in the volatile Arghandab Valley, outside Kandahar City, on Wednesday, July 7.Kevin Frayer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. forces' enemy is almost invisible in parts of this lush valley in southern Afghanistan. It comes not as gunmen but as bombs planted on footpaths, wedged into walls, nestled in trees and hidden under bridges.

The Bravo Company soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment have gotten caught up in only one significant firefight in the more than six months they've been stationed in a 1.2-square mile (3-square kilometer) area just north of Kandahar city.

But nearly every day they find — or step on — homemade bombs. As a result, they've had some intense on-the-job training in bomb-spotting, so they can continue to keep patrolling and keep the Taliban from threatening local villagers.

The military operation is completely different just a two-hour hike to the north or west. In northern Arghandab, schools are being set up and agriculture subsidies are making friends of farmers. To the west, paratroopers are in nearly daily firefights with insurgents who ambush patrols and assault combat outposts.

Bravo Company's dogged fight for control of the southern end of the Arghandab river valley illustrates a key difficulty facing U.S. forces as they work this summer and fall to squeeze the Taliban out of their spiritual heartland. The battle for Kandahar city and its environs is not one fight, but many.

"You've got three different problem sets," said the top U.S. general in the south, Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges — referring to the city, lawless southern districts with vast expanses of desert, and areas like Arghandab that at least have some government presence.

So each company has to develop very localized skills for their specific fight.

For Bravo company, it's the fight against homemade bombs — known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs — which accounted for about 40 percent of U.S. fatalities in 2009, according to an Associated Press tally of NATO reports.

Three soldiers in the company have been killed by buried explosives, and almost every soldier has encountered one.

Typically, troops depend on ordnance disposal teams for bomb experts. Those teams are in Arghandab too, but in Bravo Company the average soldier has spend a lot of time learning to spot, or even just feel out bombs. They describe a sort of sixth sense that develops after encountering so many.

"We're looking for booby traps, trip wires, or just the absence of the normal," said Lt. Ross Weinshenker, 24, who commands one of the two platoons that patrol out of the company's main combat outpost.

And the hidden killers don't discriminate. They also accounted for 60 percent of the 600 Afghan civilian casualties from January through June this year, NATO says.

To counter the threat posed by IEDs, the U.S. Defense Department is in the process of delivering $3 billion worth of additional equipment, Ashton Carter, U.S. Defense Department undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters Thursday at NATO headquarters in Kabul.

The Pentagon has doubled the number of tethered surveillance blimps being sent to Afghanistan this year to 64, providing troops a bird's eye view of certain areas, Carter said. So far, 6,700 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been delivered to Afghanistan and the Defense Department is continuing to send unmanned aerial vehicles so every route-clearance patrol will have the benefit of full-motion video overhead.

Such technical solutions can help, but Bravo Company has developed its own on-the-ground detection methods to save life and limb.

Capt. Adam Armstrong, the company commander, said than 20 of its approximately 150 soldiers stationed in Arghandab have been wounded. Many have been hit multiple times — wounded enough for a quick trip to nearby Kandahar Air Field to check on a concussion or a shrapnel injury, but nothing serious enough to keep them away more than a few weeks.

Sgt. Erik Hoeksema, a 34-year-old from Chicago, has been hit twice in two weeks. His first came when his truck struck a large bomb in April, giving him a concussion. Then on his first foot patrol after returning a fellow soldier stepped on a buried bomb. The man who took the worst impact lost his foot. Hoeksema was lucky enough to get away with just a second concussion.

Sometimes the constant vigilance wears on the soldiers.

"Hope I get deployed to Iraq after this. I could use a vacation," joked Pvt. Micah Kahn, 23, of Nashville, Tenn. "You know what you do in Iraq? Work out. Drink water. None of this losing a leg and watching it blow away."

Still, Bravo Company has refused to curtail their patrols because of the bombs. Instead, they've adapted to them.

Someone on the patrol always has a metal detector and everyone is on the alert. They vary their routes: always looking for the best spot to plant a bomb and then taking the other route.

Sometimes this means climbing over a 6-foot (1.8-meter) -high wall when there's an easy path through a crevice a few feet away. Sometimes it means taking a road that they've avoided for a while instead of picking their way through a bomb-laced wheat field.

Their efforts appear to be paying off. The soldiers' nearly constant patrols mean that the Taliban are less free to operate in the area.

The unit's bomb-avoidance skills mean the soldiers "are able to move in an area where they shouldn't be able to move," Armstrong says. And that means they're able to spend time with villagers whom the Taliban kept away from any contact with government or NATO forces.

In the village of Pir-e-Paymal, a local mullah tells troops on patrol that they aren't scared to go out in their fields anymore. Previously, people would come at night and plant bombs inside the village. One man hit one while riding his donkey cart down a village path. He was badly injured and the donkey was killed.

Now, the people don't worry so much about where they step, the mullah said. U.S. forces asked that his name not be used for his own safety in an area still full of Taliban sympathizers.

The buried explosives appear to have tapered off in recent weeks, following the capture of a major bomb-making unit in the area, Armstrong said. So the soldiers have had some quieter patrols.

But they're staying vigilant.

"I don't have any false ideas. They have plenty of people to replace them," Hoeksema said.