x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Whispering ghosts, raging Buffaloes

David Gill and Travis Beard travel to Afghanistan's Kunar Valley where the Taliban and the US forces have different methods of transport.

This year, the number of casualties suffered by US troops in Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, was 255, at the time we went to press. That hovers around 75 per cent of total casualties the force has suffered so far in 2009, with the number of IED incidents increasing threefold in the past three years. The IED is such a risk that the US government has sent more than 3,000 MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), big, heavily armoured trucks to protect its soldiers in the field. These lumbering beasts, which can weigh more than 15 tonnes, are stocked with mine-detecting and clearing technology and built with V-shaped hulls made of thick, solid steel. But Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents are also changing their battlefield tactics and modes of transport as a direct response to this technological surge. Whereas the US forces are spending billions of dollars, the Taliban are doing it on the cheap. Instead of larger vehicles, the Taliban are going smaller - inexpensive, Asian motorcycles offer mobility and flexibility for quick attacks and retreats. The jobbing fighters are paid as little as $10 per day, with a bonus of up to $75 for planting an IED. The cost for one Taliban attack can be measured in AK-47 bullets and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). It's a fiscal David vs Goliath showdown of epic proportions.

We go embedded with the US troops in the Kunar Valley and then talk with Taliban soldiers to learn what they think of their respective transports and how effective they really are.

Camp Wright is a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in the Kunar Valley, a beautiful mountainous region about 15km from the Pakistani border. The Taliban are deeply entrenched here. We are embedded with Route Clearance Patrol, 103 Mountain Division. RCP 29 is a mine clearance unit, a mix of infantry, engineers and explosives experts. They don't travel light - our patrol consists of eight hulking MRAPs, with nicknames like Buffalo, Husky and Cougar. The minimum price for one of these creatures is around half a million dollars, and the bigger ones go over the $1 million mark apiece. They are also backed up with howitzers, air-support, laser-guided smart bombs, spy drones and observation balloons. Though the idea of the MRAP is more than 30 years old, it was the Second Gulf War that brought them into the fold of the US military. By June, 2004, insurgents in Iraq had found a vulnerable side to the seemingly mighty US forces occupying the country. IEDs - a term coined for this then newfound danger - were ripping up US Humvees, the troop trucks made famous in the First Gulf War, with shocking ease. Roadside bombs were accounting for more than half the US deaths in Iraq.

Desperate calls from both inside the United States and Iraq demanded more protection for the troops, but an initial attempt to add armour to Humvees only proved that these Jeep replacements, designed in the 1970s for Cold War tactics, were out of their element in this new war. Insurgents moved their bombs from the side of the road to underneath it to exploit the Humvee's flat, vulnerable belly. In 2006, after much foot-dragging, the US government set up an organisation in the Pentagon to tackle the problem. With an estimated budget of about $6 billion, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (Jieddo) introduced sophisticated detection devices, focused on better intelligence and looked at a breed of vehicles that had already been in existence for 30 years.

Developed in South Africa and Rhodesia in the 1970s, these vehicles were heavily armoured with V-shaped hulls designed to deflect the blast from a buried mine. The designs of these lumbering trucks varies greatly, but they all have come under one designation for US military purposes: the MRAP. As the US began pulling out of Iraq and increasing its presence in Afghanistan, they moved more MRAPs in. But it's a costly effort: because of the weight of these vehicle, it is estimated that transporting them in-country costs almost $150,000 each.

But they are welcomed by the troops. Here on this routine patrol, more than 50 men cram into the juddering convoy of super-vehicles. The mission - "to clear routes for other vehicles" - takes around six hours. We drive at 20kph on hardball (paved) roads. "Ducks in a row", as one of the soldiers coins it, looking for mines and waiting for enemy contact. Private First Class Douglas Scott, head of the motorpool in Kunar Valley who also served in Iraq, says these vehicles are "a hundred times better than the Humvee.

"They're not exactly fitted with safety crumple-zones like a Porsche," he says, "but you wouldn't believe what people can walk away from after a really heavy IED blast, as long as the blast doesn't enter the hull. "There is a good chance that these guys will walk away with just broken bones or a heavy concussion." But what makes these vehicles safe also makes them extremely cumbersome, difficult to manoeuvre and even dangerous for its occupants. A three-point turn takes planning and time. Some roads are just too small or dilapidated for the MRAPs to even attempt and, although the military are keen to play it down, some models have a propensity to topple over in rough terrain. Last year, three Green Berets drowned when their MRAP rolled off the road and into a canal.

"If we get hit by an RPG and we are not disabled, we just push on through," says Scot. "But a rescue mission for a wounded Buffalo in unfriendly area is the logistical equivalent of raising the Titanic." Some of the grunts we talked with on our patrols had suggestions for the manufacturers: cushioned seats to replace "the rocks they currently have to sit on" and an iPod dock with a sound system were favourites. PFC James Wilson, sporting five staples in his scalp after an altercation with a doorframe, had a more modest request for "fewer sharp corners".

To address the issues of size and weight, the army has developed a new, smaller MRAP they call the M-ATV (MRAP all-terrain vehicle). The new vehicles, already becoming available to GIs in Afghanistan, are smaller and lighter than the current crop but have the same V-shaped hulls and heavy armour. They also have independent suspension, as opposed to the larger MRAPs, which are based on traditional lorry chassis, to give them better off-road capabilities.

"It's all part of a long and bloody battle the coalition forces have been fighting with the Taliban's IED cells over the past three years: it's a battle of move and counter move," says Chris Wattie, a Canadian freelance journalist and author of the book Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, the Taliban and the Battle That Saved Afghanistan. Wattie has been embedded with coalition troops several times during the course of the war. "The coalition improves the armour and protection of its vehicles and the Taliban makes bigger and better IEDs. So far, it's difficult to say who's winning.

"The troops hate these vehicles. They're underpowered, crowded and uncomfortable for the crews and very difficult to manoeuvre particularly in the narrow and winding lanes through Afghan villages," he says of the traditional MRAPs. "But the soldiers tolerate them because of one thing: their chances of surviving an IED strike are vastly better in an MRAP than even a heavily armoured conventional vehicle."

When the US first sent troops into Afghanistan in 2001, news pictures of bearded and turbaned Taliban bouncing around in the back of a Toyota pickup wielding AK-47s, speeding up a mountain pass in Tora Bora to escape US forces became a staple image of the war. These were the mobile Mujahadeen units of old, a classic all-terrain fighting vehicle. From the 1970s to the end of the century, through battles with first Soviet and then US forces, this was the Afghan equivalent of the old US Jeep.

Increasingly sophisticated US surveillance techniques brought about the demise of the iconic pickup, and the preferred transport for Afghan insurgents is now the "Talibike". These small-displacement motorcycles, mainly produced in China, come with names like Super Kabul and Land Cruiser, and are shipped in cardboard boxes, manufactured with plastic and low-cost alloys and cost about $400. As well as being cheap, they are small, remarkably agile, relatively quiet and easy to repair - in fact, they are the polar opposite of the much-vaunted MRAPs. The bikes are often purloined off the back of a lorry; the Highway One to Kandahar is notorious for this form of taxation.

Mobile Taliban Units now travel in motorcycle packs, carrying two or sometimes three people (hiding RPGs and AK-47s under their shawls). Taking advantage of their 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 through narrow village alleyways.

"One real advantage of these bikes," adds Wattie, "is that they are virtually indistinguishable from those used by Afghan National Police or many civilians in the areas where our troops are operating, making it easy for them to blend in with the locals when they hide their weapons." Logistically, what you see is what you get. No FOBS, no force protection, no ration packs required. The Taliban we met lived on freshly picked apples and baked potatoes that they cooked in the ground. When you travel on motorcycles, you need to be efficient in your packing and equipment.

The US Army freely admits, despite their superior firepower and hi-tech mine-detecting equipment, that the insurgents are still managing to wreak havoc, and that they are surprisingly quick to respond to the US methods. The Taliban no longer rely on the cover of night to plant IEDs, as they're all too are well aware of the coalition's surveillance methods. "We no longer travel in the dark, the foreign forces own the night," says one Talib soldier. "This is the difference from previous Jihad, but now during the day we travel freely. No one can see us. Sometime, we travel in convoys of thirty."

The Talibs we talked to don't hold the MRAPs in high regard. They boast, "We have destroyed forty-five tanks in Wardak this year." They call the US vehicles tanks, but as far they're concerned the Russian versions were a lot tougher. Much of this is bravado. The Afghan countryside is still littered with skeletal tank hulls from the Soviet's failed invasion of the country in the 1980s. The American forces are different. They leave nothing and no one behind and, without the MRAP, the casualties for them here would be on an unthinkable scale.

The adaptability of the Taliban is one of the main reasons the war has dragged on so long. And, for the Taliban, life is cheap. So are their methods. American lives and weapons are not, and the Afghans know that. The Jihadists have a saying about the US presence here: "They have the watch, we have the time." motoring@thenational.ae