75 per cent of all military casualties in Afghanistan now originate from IEDs. The number of incidents involving these deadly devices has increased three-fold in the past two years. The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, JIEDDO, a semi-secret arm of the Pentagon with an estimated budget of around $6 billion have introduced a dazzling array of sophisticated technological ‘force protection’ equipment. These heavy armoured, route clearance and mine detection vehicles have had a huge impact in reducing the casualties in Iraq but Afghanistan is a whole different country both in terms of terrain and the tactics of its insurgents.
The back-story to the rise of the highly successful use of the Improvised Explosive Device came shortly after Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. In an overwhelming show of firepower, coined ‘Shock & Awe’, the US Military spectacularly displayed to the world its very own weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi Army, as predicted, rolled over. Saddam statues fell. ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners were unfurled.
Only the Iraqi people did not roll over. The so called ‘remnants’ and ‘die hard Bathists’ soon turned into a nationwide insurgency and the American troops, first greeted as liberators, began to take serious casualties from massive roadside bombs and suicide attacks. The ‘IED’ acronym became common currency in the media. By 2005, there were an estimated 3,000 attacks on coalition forces every day, and about half of those were from IEDs. The US Humvee, the workhorse of the US infantry, was literally being shredded apart. With hundreds of soldiers dying every month and thousands horrifically injured, ‘Force Protection’ became a key component of US military strategy. The current tally to date in Iraq: 4,340 US soldiers killed and 31,483 seriously wounded. As a weapon or a tactic, the IED dominated the battlefield in Iraq.
We are not quite that far down the road yet with Afghanistan but things seem to be heading that way. The insurgency here has taken longer to develop but 350 foreign soldiers have been killed so far this year, by far and away the highest number of deaths since the Taliban regime collapsed in late 2001.
Camp Wright is a Forward Operating Base in the Kunar valley, a beautiful mountainous region about 10 miles from the Pakistani border. The Taliban are deeply entrenched here. We are on an embed with Route Clearance Patrol, 103 Mountain Division. RCP 29 is a mine clearance unit, a mix of infantry, engineers and explosives experts. If this unit were a touring rock band they’d be the Rolling Stones. They don’t travel light. They have a lot of gear. Our patrol consists of eight vehicles; commonly know as MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), cutely anthropomorphised into Buffaloes, Huskies, and Cougars etc. The minimum starting price for one of these creatures is around half a million dollars. They are also backed up with howitzers, air support, laser guided smart bombs, spy drones, observation balloons and whisper helicopters, whatever they are! (We have signed agreements to say we won’t talk about or photograph most of what’s on display here at Camp Wright).
A routine patrol is a logistical behemoth. Over 50 men in a juddering convoy of eight of these super-vehicles, all tooled up with 50 calibre machine guns and grenade launchers. The mission, ‘to clear routes for other vehicles’ takes around six hours. We drive at about 18km on hardball (paved) roads. ‘Ducks in a row’, as one of the soldiers coined it, looking for mines and waiting for enemy ‘contact’.
My previous experience of these alien machines has mainly been from an Afghan perspective; stuck behind a convoy in Kabul with a vigorously paranoid top-gunner frantically waving down cars with his outstretched arm or occasionally, if they get too close, a powerful green laser beam. Ignore it and you receive what’s prescribed as ‘an escalation of force’. To the non-Taliban subscribing members of the population, submission is the only sensible course of action. Now, with roles reversed, it’s interesting to watch, through four inches of tinted bulletproof glass, the reaction of the locals as we rumble and scrape through villages. Some wave, some kids throw rocks. Mainly they just glower, at what they surely must perceive as an overwhelming occupying force. The body language isn’t good.
For anyone who has watched ‘Generation Kill’, with GIs rolling through Iraq in stripped down, canvas door Humvees taking heavy IED casualties, this is a whole new ballgame. The soldiers wax lyrical about the MRAPS’ V-shaped blast-deflecting hulls, steel plated heavy armour, RPG deflecting grills and the state of the art ‘bomb jamming’ technology. They weigh in at around 20 tons. The doors are so thick that even pumped-up soldiers struggle to close them. This is ‘Generation Not Get Killed’.
RCP 29 have mixed feelings about these vehicles. What makes them safe also makes them extremely cumbersome and difficult to maneuver. A three-point turn takes about a week. Taking one of these beasts on unpaved roads is the equivalent of taking a dustbin lorry on a BMX path and although the military are keen to play it down, some of the bigger models have a propensity to topple over in rough terrain. A rescue mission for a disabled Buffalo in ‘unfriendly area’ is the military logistical equivalent of re-floating the Titanic.
Some of the grunts we talked to on our patrols had a few improvement suggestions for the manufactures; cushioned seats to replace ‘the rocks they currently have to sit on’. PFC Wilson said he would like, ‘less sharp corners’ as he revealed the five staples holding his head together after an interface with an MRAP doorframe. ‘An i-pod docking station with a Bose Sound System’ was one of the most popular recommendations. Although, ‘an electric sunroof and air-conditioning that actually works’ were some of the most fanciful ideas that I could relate to after spending six hours inside what can only be described as a ‘beige coloured Aga oven’.
Air bags are not standard on these vehicles. “Whatever you hit loses!” said one soldier. Later that week we hit and killed an eight year-old boy. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. We were driving at low-speed through a hostile and sparsely populated area of the Pesh Valley when he ran out, straight into the path of one of the convoys rear vehicles. He was dead on impact and another futile death in this tragic war. Commander in Chief General McChrystal has ordered new driving practices for troops in Afghanistan to counter incidents like this but Afghans don’t do road safety. The number of holes in its surface usually defines the speed limit. In Kunar there are hundreds. Many of them ‘man-made’ especially for the Americans.
Over the last two years US forces saw 736 IED incidents in Afghanistan, up dramatically from 234 in June 2007. Casualties from IEDs have also increased. So far this year, 23 military personnel have died from IED attacks and 166 troops wounded. “This summer’s activity has been the highest on record,” said JIEDDO Command Sgt. Major Todd Burnett. Soldiers in our platoon talk of RPGs going clean through these machines. The 15 or 20 destroyed vehicles parked recently outside Camp Victory on the Jalalabad Road In Kabul bore witness to those testaments. In the ‘graveyard of empires’ it seems quite fitting that they mostly drive around in a vehicle that occasionally doubles up as a coffin. Which is why a lot of soldiers expressed a desire, to us at least, to “get out there and fight the fuckers”. Frustrating as well for us as cameramen. Generally the only time we left the vehicles, while we were on patrol, was to take a piss and a gaze up into the beautiful wooded mountains and wonder just who those “fuckers” actually were.
Ghosts on Two Wheels
2001 – Operation Enduring Freedom. Images of bearded and turbaned up Taliban bouncing around in the back of a Toyota pick-up wielding AK47s haring up some mountain pass in Tora Bora fleeing US forces – a classic image of the war. These were the mobile Taliban units of old. The classic all-terrain fighting vehicle with a heavy machine gun strapped to the tailgate. From the 70s to the end of the millennium this was the Afghan equivalent of the Ford Cortina. It got you from A to B. No matter what. Even if B was 4000 ft up a snowy mountaintop. Every Mujahadeen/Jihadi worth his holy salt had one. They never died. Jeremy Clarkson actually tried to kill one on Top Gear. They dropped a garden shed on it. They set fire to it. They threw it in a river. They failed. It lived. That is… (pause like Clarkson)… until now.
Increasingly sophisticated surveillance techniques by the American forces have seen the demise of the iconic Toyota, The ‘mode a la transport’ for the Afghan insurgent is now the Talibike; Made in China, shipped in cardboard boxes, manufactured with plastic and cheap alloys with names like Pamir and Land Cruiser they cost around $400. They might be cheap but they are remarkably agile. They are small and relatively quiet and easy to repair. In fact they are the polar opposite of the much-vaunted MRAPs.
Mobile Taliban units now mainly travel on motorcycle, carrying two or sometimes three people (hiding RPGs and AK47s under their shawls). Taking advantage of their quick, low-cost mobility they can stage crippling close-range surprise attacks. Disabling one enemy vehicle can immobilise a whole unit for hours. With just one stricken MRAP, coalition forces need to secure the whole valley with helicopter support, air cover and then bring in recovery vehicles. The Taliban shelter in local homes and in fields and are pretty much invisible from the air. They set up lightning roadblocks and can disperse ‘like ghosts’ within seconds. Logistically, what you see is what you get. The Taliban we met lived on freshly picked apples and baked potatoes that they cooked in the ground. No ration packs required.
So despite all this superior firepower and hyper-technological mine detecting equipment the insurgents are still managing to wreak havoc. The US Army freely admits that the Taliban are surprisingly adaptable and quick to respond to their methods. They no longer use the cover of night to plant IEDs as they’re all too well aware of the sophisticated surveillance methods; The drones, the black whispering helicopters constantly skimming the valleys, the giant blimp hovering ominously over the Kunar valley. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the ‘infidels’ are watching them. They no longer use mobile phones to detonate charges because of the jamming equipment and have responded with what is loosely dubbed ‘anti-technology’; Stripped down non-metallic IEDs using string, trip wires and matches etc.
The cost for one Taliban attack can be measured in AK bullets and RPGs. For the Pentagon however it’s around $1000 a second. The scale of the US administration’s spending on the Afghan War currently stands at $230 billion. The cost of deploying one US soldier for one year is $390,000. The Taliban are an unmeasurable fighting force. Some are full time Jihadists, well trained and dedicated to the cause, most are accidental guerillas paid as little as $10 per day or up to $75 for planting an IED. This adds up to a fiscal David v Goliath of biblical proportions.
The Taliban have a saying about the US presence here: “they have the watch, we have the time.” In the West everybody is talking about withdrawal, or more troops, or the rights and wrongs of a negotiated peace. As for the Taliban, it’s more straightforward. Life is cheap here. So are their methods. American lives, with the financial clock ticking at an ever-increasing speed, are not. Advantage anti-techno.
The Afghan Hound