Marines sweep routes daily for buried bombs. Lessons learned are circulated… (Tony Perry / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Nawa, Afghanistan — A long, dusty road under a bright blue Afghan sky. To the left, a stagnant irrigation canal; to the right, drying cornfields. Marines from Charlie Company walk slowly, eyes fixed on the dirt, the drainage culverts, the weeds, the mud houses.
Suddenly, at the front of the column, a metal detector in the hands of a young lance corporal begins to buzz.
Staff Sgt. Sam McDaniel moves quickly into place, gently probing the ground for evidence of a buried bomb, by far the No. 1 killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- and responsible for three of the four American deaths reported Sunday and Monday.
It is part of a cat-and-mouse game repeated countless times here in the insurgent stronghold of Helmand province and across the country. Route clearance teams, alert for constantly shifting tactics, comb the roads by day. Searches also uncover small stashes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the main bomb-making ingredient. At night, Marines using night-vision goggles and sniper rifles, and given shoot-to-kill orders, watch for insurgents burying the bombs.
Almost 300 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan this year. An estimated 70% to 80% of the deaths are attributed to IEDs, the shorthand for improvised explosive devices. Of the four Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, killed here, three died of injuries suffered in IED explosions.
"An IED can do as much psychological damage as physical damage," said Capt. Frank "Gus" Biggio, head of a civil affairs unit that meets every day with Afghan civilians.
The threat of IEDs makes every troop movement in Afghanistan more difficult, decreasing the effectiveness of the fighting force, says Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has spent billions of dollars on studies and new technology to combat the hidden bombs. One effort launched by the Army studies the bombs and works with contractors to develop technology to spot and defuse them. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this month announced the formation of a separate task force headed by Ashton Carter, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, and Marine Lt. Gen. John Paxton.
Lessons learned in Afghanistan are circulated among troops and then relayed back to bases such as Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton in California, for the next contingent of Marines who will be heading here.
Afghanistan's south, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, is one of the most important battlegrounds of the war. U.S. forces are present in Helmand province in numbers not seen since the U.S.-led invasion eight years ago, part of a major offensive by American and British soldiers. U.S. forces have fanned out into the lower Helmand River valley, seeking to secure and hold a swath of agricultural territory, which also serves as an important infiltration route.
Until recently, the insurgents had largely gone unchallenged.
When Marines swooped into the Nawa district in July, insurgents attacked with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. When that failed, they began using buried bombs in hopes of catching a Humvee full of Marines or a foot patrol.
Sometimes they do. But Afghan civilians are frequently caught in the middle, and innocent Afghans walking or riding their motorcycles have been the more common victims here. The Marines have evacuated more injured Afghans for medical care than their own troops.
Limiting civilian casualties is a central tenet of McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy. U.S. officials say they have sharply reduced the number of civilian deaths, mainly by changing the rules for airstrikes.
The Taliban, too, announced this summer that it was changing its strategy to limit civilian casualties -- probably to counter the public relations effect of McChrystal's effort. But it still appears willing to put civilians in harm's way if the target is tempting enough, as it did by firing rockets at a marketplace east of Kabul, the capital, recently in an effort to kill a French general.
Here, the Marines say, they have the impression that insurgents have shifted their tactics in an effort to avoid civilian casualties. They are planting bombs on roads that are more likely to be used by military patrols.
An IED exploded recently beneath a military vehicle near a Marine outpost, and patrols are finding bombs on the rural roads Marines patrol to give civilians a sense of security. But the main road to the Nawa market has been clear.
Taliban fighters, the Marines say, constantly change the kinds of bombs and the places they are buried.
"The enemy is not stupid," said McDaniel, the staff sergeant and father of two sons, 6 and 16 months old, who is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Like all explosive ordnance specialists, the 28-year-old Kokomo, Ind., native is a volunteer.
In some areas, U.S. and coalition troops have uncovered large caches of sophisticated bomb materials and military ordnance, including antitank shells.