Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: Alienating locals

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Editor's note: Afghanistan's Hurt Locker is a three-part series on the U.S. military's efforts to combat increasingly deadly roadside bombs in Afghanistan. It examines the history of IED attacks, follows the work of a unit tasked with locating the bombs and looks at the unintended consequences of the U.S. strategy.

ZHARI, Afghanistan — Highway One may just be the most deadly road in Afghanistan.

And the 25-mile stretch that runs through the Zhari district between Kandahar and the edge of Helmand province was so laced with roadside bombs that it was dubbed, “the heart of darkness.”

When Lt. Col. Reich Andersen first arrived here with his unit, the 1-12 Infantry Battalion out of Fort Carson, Colo., he and his men were determined to do something about it.

They’ve had significant success in thwarting Taliban attacks by roadside bombs by employing attack helicopters to take out anyone suspected of planting the devices. But their success has come at a cost to the lives of Afghan civilians, particularly farmers who are often digging in the fields alongside the roads.

This daily struggle by U.S. forces to unearth roadside bombs and those who plant them along this vital supply route has come to symbolize the delicate balance between a need to keep the road safe and the danger of alienating those Afghans who live along it.

When the 1-12 first landed in the district, it was September and every day at least 10 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were found or exploded along the paved highway that cuts through the infantry battalion’s area of operations.

The two-lane road is a critical supply line to both military operations and to the local, farm-based economy. Andersen says American troops and Afghan civilians were getting blown up by bombs the Taliban had positioned by tunneling under the road — some of them weighing between 800 to 1,500 pounds.

Not long after the 1-12 arrived, a massive blast on Highway One killed four American soldiers who were part of a unit trying to find IEDs before they went off. Andersen said the explosion “vaporized” the soldiers’ MRAP — a heavily armored vehicle designed to withstand all but the biggest IED blasts.

“You couldn’t even tell it was a MRAP,” he said. “It’s just unfathomable the amount of explosives it takes to destroy one of those vehicles.”

The explosion left a 20-foot crater in the road. The crude, but powerful fertilizer-and-fuel bomb that destroyed the vehicle weighed an estimated 1,500 pounds.

“They tunneled up underneath the road and, over a period of time, just packed the stuff in there and waited for the opportune moment,” Andersen said.

The extraordinary danger prompted coalition commanders for Afghanistan’s southern region to direct Anderson’s unit to begin what one officer called a counter-IED “highway surge” — and to use all his troops and resources to stop the Taliban from placing the massive IEDs under the road.

Andersen received Special Forces and intelligence assets, and more route clearance patrols came through. His infantrymen did what they called “Madmax” — driving up and down the road looking for IEDs. Afghan police and soldiers set up checkpoints. Drones, helicopters and jets flew over the road day and night, conducting surveillance and targeting suspected Taliban placing the IEDs.

The offensive was largely successful. And, at least for now, Andersen says his patch of Highway One is a lot safer, with IED events having fallen from 10 per day to 15 in a month-long period this fall.

“We have significantly reduced the number of IEDs that were targeting vehicles, the ones that are 800 to 1,200 pounds that vaporize MRAPs,” he said. “The enemy doesn’t have the time anymore to tunnel and stockpile all this stuff because of our constant presence out there.”

The effort has been widely praised by the coalition commanders in Kandahar.

But Afghan government officials and residents in Zhari, and in other places in southern Afghanistan, allege the coalition helicopters are killing innocent civilians in their counter-IED campaigns.

“Ten days ago the helicopters killed two guys who were just watering the fields,” said an Afghan farmer named Jan Mahmad during a visit by an American patrol to his crudely constructed mud compound.

“We are afraid of the helicopters,” he told U.S. Army Lt. Nathan Wagnon, the patrol leader. “We cannot work our fields.”

Jan Mahmad echoed the feelings of many Afghans in the Zhari district.

Wagnon asked his commander, Capt. Duke Reim, if he remembered the incident in which the two men were killed. Reim says two men were engaged by the helicopters because the pilots “thought they were putting an IED in on the road.”

Wagnon explained to Jan Mahmad and a family member, Mohammad, that the helicopters provide security. He also explained to the farmers about how to avoid getting targeted by the pilots: don’t dig near a road or footpath.

“The helicopters think the guys working or digging on the road are actually putting bombs in the road,” Wagnon told the two men through an interpreter. “So if you’re on the road, working, and a helicopter flies over, you need to put your tools down and step away from road.”

As they’re talking, another attack helicopter flew fast and low nearby. The children cowered. The men looked up, warily.

Similar fears, and civilian deaths have been reported across southern Afghanistan. Deaths due to air strikes have reportedly decreased since Gen. Stanley McChrystal ordered the international military coalition here to be more conservative in their use of air strikes. The attacks were killing dozens, and up to several hundred Afghan civilians in some months.

Now Nyaz Mohammad Sar Haddi, Zhari’s district government leader, says the American’s rush to eliminate the IED risk in Zhari alone has resulted in 17 civilians being killed since the fall of 2009.

“The Americans are killing innocent civilians,” he said at his office, located in the middle of the 1-12’s Forward Operating Base in Zhari. “Some were killed by mistake, some I’m not quite sure.”

Sar Haddi says those innocent civilians killed include a 12-year-old boy standing outside his family’s compound, shot by a U.S. patrol who mistook him for an insurgent. He says some of those killed were probably Taliban, but he says some definitely were not.

“The helicopter killed two men in front of an Afghan National Police checkpoint,” he said. “They should be very careful. When they are firing on someone, they need to confirm that he is an insurgent.”

“If the helicopter pilots aren’t sure they should ask Afghan police for help,” he added. “If the men are passing a checkpoint, ask the police to check them. And if the men are innocent let them go, and if not then they can arrest them.”

Sar Haddi says one of the men who was killed is a cousin of a member of Afghanistan’s parliament. He says this, and other incidents, have enraged people here.

At a meeting in early December, Sar Haddi says 50 Afghans from Zari showed up at a community meeting with Andersen to complain about the civilian casualties. A few days later, at a tense security meeting at Sar Haddi’s office on the U.S. base, the district leader warned Andersen that the U.S. risked pushing the local civilians into the hands of the Taliban.

“We cannot accept this anymore. If you continue to kill innocent people there will be a reaction,” he said at the meeting in his office — a converted trailer — with Canadian and U.S. military personnel. “The people will distance themselves from [the coalition] and the government of Afghanistan.”

“My soldiers don’t intentionally kill innocent people,” Andersen shot back, frustrated. “We don’t target civilians. We fail when we target civilians.”

Andersen was sure that at least one of the incidents Sar Haddi mentioned was not a case of innocent civilians being targeted. He said the gun turret footage from the incident in front of the Afghan Police checkpoint clearly showed the men were digging an IED. He promised to begin bringing such footage to meetings with local Afghans to prove to them that his men had good reason to kill the people they targeted. Still, in an interview later, he said that mistakes do happen.

“Unfortunately, civilians sometimes are accidentally hit, and that’s our last intent,” he said. “We more than anyone know that if civilians are hurt or killed that you have probably just created more support for the Taliban; we know that better than anybody.”

“We are doing the best we can with it. It’s a very difficult fight,” he said.

Other coalition officers familiar with the 1-12’s counter IED operation and Sar Haddi’s complaints have questioned whether the Americans need to use the helicopters to target those who place the IEDs. They say using airpower makes it more likely that innocent civilians could be targeted. The officers did not want to be identified.

Andersen justifies his troops and the helicopter crews’ actions. He says the population west of his base is 99 percent Taliban or Taliban supporters. He says local Afghans display some “strange” behavior — like digging in a road at night, and then running away when a helicopter comes. He says there are split second decisions that have to be made.

“My aviator brothers … have a very difficult mission,” he said. “And if they engaged a target, I have to believe that they had good reason to do that.”

Andersen says his men do take precautions: they talk to locals about what is “acceptable behavior” in an IED-ridden area.

“Don’t dig in the roads, don’t dig on footpaths,” he said. “If you do, please let us know, so that we can know ahead of time, and we can tell people, ‘those are farmers down there.’”

Andersen says he’s also halted helicopter flights from going over some of the 1-12’s areas of operations, so farmers aren’t afraid to work in their fields.

He says part of the problem is that the Taliban hides among the local population, making it hard for anyone — soldiers on the ground or helicopter pilots, to tell who’s who. And he says the locals don’t understand what a challenge it is for U.S. forces here to figure it out.

“We can’t see, we don’t know who the local Taliban are,” he said. “They’re not uniformed. And I don’t think the [local Afghans] understand our frustration when we say, ‘please help us identify these guys.’"

Andersen hopes to set up a system whereby farmers can tell his troops, or the Afghan army or police, if they’re digging near a road, so they aren’t mistaken for Taliban.

“Everybody owns a cell phone out here,” he said, when asked if the plan was a viable option in a country with no electricity and where the cell phone network goes down almost every night and where much is often lost in translation. But he says there are few other options open to him in a violent area with civilians caught between his forces and the Taliban.

“I'm trying to come up with ways that we can coexist and farmers can continue to farm, and we’re not going to inadvertently target them, while also trying to push the Taliban back, and it’s very challenging,” he said. “Because we can’t ignore the Taliban, and I can’t put people in a situation where they’re going to be targeted.”

Andersen is hopeful that this spring’s troop surge will enable him to enlarge the “footprint” he has on the highway and secure more of the villages and towns along the road.

He says this would allow Afghans to safely point out Taliban members and individuals responsible for laying IEDs without being targeted. This would mean less reliance on helicopters and fewer inadvertent civilian casualties.

Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: The series

Defeat the device: Searching for bombs with Task Force Thor

Facing off against IEDs: An increasingly deadly battle