IEDs in Afghanistan

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Improvised explosive devices ? or IEDs ? are crude but deadly devices that have cost thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. US military commanders say they're the primary threat facing troops there. Ben Gilbert has the first of several stories on IEDs in Afghanistan and the effort to counter them.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. It's no secret NATO and Afghan forces are massing around the town of Marja in Helmon province. They're gearing up for a major offensive against the Taliban. According to some reports first skirmishes have already begun. Marja is the largest town under Taliban control. The Taliban are said to be lacing the roads and fields with land mines and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. US commanders say IEDs are the biggest threat to troops in Afghanistan; more than 6,000 were killed or injured by them last year. Ben Gilbert was embedded with Task Force Kandahar and he has the first of several reports on IEDs in Afghanistan.

BEN GILBERT: For the 43,000 US and NATO troops deployed in southern Afghanistan it's no longer a question of if but when they're going to hit an IED. Mike McCoy is a 22-year old US Army specialist with the 112th Infantry in Kandahar province.

MIKE MCCOY: I've only been blown up once this tour. But how many have we had? Probably eight or nine this tour. Not too bad. I mean it could be worse. They don't so much shoot at you here as blow you up, which doesn't really give you an opportunity to fight back which sucks.

BEN GILBERT: McCoy wasn't injured in any of the IED attacks but his buddy, Private 1st Class Andrew J has been wounded twice. Both times when his gun truck was blown up. Luckily his injuries weren't that severe.

ANDREW JAY: A couple of blown eardrums and I just got a concussion. I was in the turret both times so I just took it to the dome and kind of just laid down in the turret and woke up.

BEN: Others haven't been so lucky. So far eight soldiers from the 112th Infantry have been killed by IEDs. Jay says those who survive are haunted by the experience.

JAY: The worst part you have in getting blown up isn't getting blown up, it's waiting for the next time, because you get in all that paranoia you know.

BEN: Outside NATO in US bases in southern Afghanistan there are few paved roads and bombs are easily concealed in the dirt tracks and footpaths. So some soldiers wear tourniquets already on, ready to be tightened in case their legs get blown off. 112 commander Lieutenant Colonel Reich Anderson says IEDs present the biggest danger to his troops.

REICH ANDERSON: I can't overstate the threat of IEDs. You got to walk with one eye on the ground and one eye up watching where you're stepping, you know all the time.

BEN: So far this year an American or coalition soldier has died every day from an IED blast in Afghanistan. And homemade bombs now cause more than 60 percent of all casualties. Colonel Mark Lee is the point man for the battle against IEDs in southern Afghanistan. He says 90 percent of the IEDs he's sees are fertilizer bombs, made of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, basically the combination used for the Oklahoma City bombing.

MARK LEE: These are exceptionally crude but lethal devices. It's, you know it's simple to make and it's, they make a lot of them, and so I mean that's really the challenge is the volume of number of devices we're encountering.

BEN: In an effort to combat the threat there's been a surge of sorts in the number of US and coalition counter-IED troops. One of those units is Task Force Paladin South. Paladin South makes sure troops have the equipment to defeat IEDs, everything from robots to radio and cell phone jammers. It also oversees the bomb squads that defuse IEDs and provides analysts to examine the bombs. But as the troops have come up with new tactics the insurgents have countered with some simple modifications. Andrew Levy, a Navy counter-IED trainer likens it to a game of chess.

ANDREW LEVY: They see what we do to counter all their efforts, and then they respond to it. So we just try to provide ourselves the ability to look ahead and predict where they're going to go with it.

BEN: The objective Levy says is to get what is called left of the boom. That means trying to make sure the bomb is never made or emplaced in the first place. Army Captain Jackson Salter is with one of the counter-IED teams assigned to infantry units throughout Afghanistan. He's like a detective on a TV crime show using forensics and other police techniques to target IED networks.

JACKSON SALTER: We kind of look at the tactical side of how these IEDs are being emplaced and kind of what tactically why they're there. And we also have a piece that does the criminal aspect for collecting evidence to get up so that we can prosecute these guys when they are caught.

BEN: Colonel Mark Lee the counter-IED chief in southern Afghanistan says it's all about prevention.

LEE: We have a lot of you know amazing, amazing coalition forces in Afghan troopers who just absolutely are fearless when it comes to dealing with these devices. Once they're in place. And they do a fantastic job. But you know the best, and in this case the best defense is to change the game and not let them make the IEDs.

BEN: But the game doesn't appear to be changing as fast as many in Washington would like. The government accountability office recently criticized the military for failing to do enough to counter the IEDs and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has appointed a new task force to find out why the fight isn't progressing faster, and more smoothly. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. It's no secret NATO and Afghan forces are massing around the town of Marja in Helmon province. They're gearing up for a major offensive against the Taliban. According to some reports first skirmishes have already begun. Marja is the largest town under Taliban control. The Taliban are said to be lacing the roads and fields with land mines and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. US commanders say IEDs are the biggest threat to troops in Afghanistan; more than 6,000 were killed or injured by them last year. Ben Gilbert was embedded with Task Force Kandahar and he has the first of several reports on IEDs in Afghanistan.

BEN GILBERT: For the 43,000 US and NATO troops deployed in southern Afghanistan it's no longer a question of if but when they're going to hit an IED. Mike McCoy is a 22-year old US Army specialist with the 112th Infantry in Kandahar province.

MIKE MCCOY: I've only been blown up once this tour. But how many have we had? Probably eight or nine this tour. Not too bad. I mean it could be worse. They don't so much shoot at you here as blow you up, which doesn't really give you an opportunity to fight back which sucks.

BEN GILBERT: McCoy wasn't injured in any of the IED attacks but his buddy, Private 1st Class Andrew J has been wounded twice. Both times when his gun truck was blown up. Luckily his injuries weren't that severe.

ANDREW JAY: A couple of blown eardrums and I just got a concussion. I was in the turret both times so I just took it to the dome and kind of just laid down in the turret and woke up.

BEN: Others haven't been so lucky. So far eight soldiers from the 112th Infantry have been killed by IEDs. Jay says those who survive are haunted by the experience.

JAY: The worst part you have in getting blown up isn't getting blown up, it's waiting for the next time, because you get in all that paranoia you know.

BEN: Outside NATO in US bases in southern Afghanistan there are few paved roads and bombs are easily concealed in the dirt tracks and footpaths. So some soldiers wear tourniquets already on, ready to be tightened in case their legs get blown off. 112 commander Lieutenant Colonel Reich Anderson says IEDs present the biggest danger to his troops.

REICH ANDERSON: I can't overstate the threat of IEDs. You got to walk with one eye on the ground and one eye up watching where you're stepping, you know all the time.

BEN: So far this year an American or coalition soldier has died every day from an IED blast in Afghanistan. And homemade bombs now cause more than 60 percent of all casualties. Colonel Mark Lee is the point man for the battle against IEDs in southern Afghanistan. He says 90 percent of the IEDs he's sees are fertilizer bombs, made of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, basically the combination used for the Oklahoma City bombing.

MARK LEE: These are exceptionally crude but lethal devices. It's, you know it's simple to make and it's, they make a lot of them, and so I mean that's really the challenge is the volume of number of devices we're encountering.

BEN: In an effort to combat the threat there's been a surge of sorts in the number of US and coalition counter-IED troops. One of those units is Task Force Paladin South. Paladin South makes sure troops have the equipment to defeat IEDs, everything from robots to radio and cell phone jammers. It also oversees the bomb squads that defuse IEDs and provides analysts to examine the bombs. But as the troops have come up with new tactics the insurgents have countered with some simple modifications. Andrew Levy, a Navy counter-IED trainer likens it to a game of chess.

ANDREW LEVY: They see what we do to counter all their efforts, and then they respond to it. So we just try to provide ourselves the ability to look ahead and predict where they're going to go with it.

BEN: The objective Levy says is to get what is called left of the boom. That means trying to make sure the bomb is never made or emplaced in the first place. Army Captain Jackson Salter is with one of the counter-IED teams assigned to infantry units throughout Afghanistan. He's like a detective on a TV crime show using forensics and other police techniques to target IED networks.

JACKSON SALTER: We kind of look at the tactical side of how these IEDs are being emplaced and kind of what tactically why they're there. And we also have a piece that does the criminal aspect for collecting evidence to get up so that we can prosecute these guys when they are caught.

BEN: Colonel Mark Lee the counter-IED chief in southern Afghanistan says it's all about prevention.

LEE: We have a lot of you know amazing, amazing coalition forces in Afghan troopers who just absolutely are fearless when it comes to dealing with these devices. Once they're in place. And they do a fantastic job. But you know the best, and in this case the best defense is to change the game and not let them make the IEDs.

BEN: But the game doesn't appear to be changing as fast as many in Washington would like. The government accountability office recently criticized the military for failing to do enough to counter the IEDs and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has appointed a new task force to find out why the fight isn't progressing faster, and more smoothly. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

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