Keeping roads open now a major part of soldiers' duties, while insurgents aim to keep civilians away from polls as election looms.
Roadside bombs now top threat to soldiers
COMBAT OUTPOST CONLON // The soldiers were woken by heavy boots echoing through their plywood hut and orders to get to their vehicles. Afghan sentries had seen flashlights and men digging at a site where several convoys and patrols had been hit by roadside bombs. Grabbing weapons, strapping on armour and rubbing sleep from their eyes, the men of combat outpost Conlon went to investigate. As thousands of US troops pour into Afghanistan as part of Barack Obama's surge to battle a resurgent Taliban, they face a deadly and all too common threat. Roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan have risen 80 per cent since last year, and now claim 60 per cent of all Nato-led casualties. This month, the British army lost its most senior officer killed in combat since the Falklands War when a bomb tore through his vehicle in southern Helmand province. While such attacks kill scores of international soldiers, for Afghan forces and civilians with little to no protective armour, the toll is many times higher. And with elections less than six weeks away, commanders fear the bombing will only increase as insurgents try to keep civilians from the polls. On Thursday, an overturned lorry rigged with explosives blew up near Kabul, killing 25 people, many of them students, in one of the deadliest blasts this year in Afghanistan. Capt Matthew Crowe is the commander of outpost Conlon. His soldiers and a detachment of Afghan army soldiers must keep an eight kilometre stretch of road at the bottom of the Jelrez valley, in Wardak province, clear of bombs. Wardak sits at the gates of Kabul that last year was used as a launch pad for insurgent attacks on the capital. In the panic that insurgents were closing in on the capital, 3,500 men from the 10th Mountain Division were diverted from Iraq to Wardak and the flanks of the city. Keeping the roads open has since become a critical part of their job. The division's patch includes Highway One, codenamed Route Ohio, linking the capital Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar. Burnt-out lorries still sit beside the route where last year insurgents threatened to cut the key lifeline to the south. "It's predominantly Highway One we are worried about, but all of these secondary roads are important. Highway One has become such a target for the insurgents because it is the main lifeline between Kabul and Kandahar," Capt Crowe, 32, said. It was this team who were responsible for the night-time investigation. After 20 minutes scanning the night, the platoon radioed in that they had seen nothing. The men had probably been frightened off by the warning shots. Villagers said the flashlights came from guests returning from a wedding party. The patrol returned to grab more sleep before getting up at dawn for their daily survey of the route. Each day a joint patrol of Afghan and US soldiers comb the road, checking culverts and looking for signs of digging or wiring. "The big thing is not to get complacent. We are now six months into our deployment and this is the time where, if we are not careful, we will make mistakes," Capt Crowe said. He has seen the incidents of roadside bombs steadily climb in his three tours of Afghanistan. Accordingly, US tactics have had to change. Unarmoured vehicles have been replaced by hulking 11,350kg mine-resistant and ambush protected (M-Rap) lorries, originally used to protect US soldiers from roadside bombs in Iraq. "The first time I was here in 2003 there were no improvised explosive devices [IEDs], that was something we never encountered," he said. "Most of the missions I did were in soft-skinned vehicles. Last time, in 2006 and 2007, IEDs were just becoming a big threat but in the area I was in, the threat was also suicide bombers. This time around, this is the first time I have been over here where I have worked with M-Raps. "It's been a steady increase in the threat for us. The enemy is learning from what they are doing in Iraq and teaching what they have learnt here." Coalition commanders say the insurgents are forced to rely more on roadside bombs and suicide attacks because they are constantly defeated in open combat. Figures for the US forces in eastern Afghanistan alone show there were 465 IEDs found or detonated in May, up from 373 last year and 222 the year before. May's blasts killed 12 US soldiers in the region and wounded 96. Afghan police and soldiers in pickup trucks and lightly armoured vehicles face a higher death toll. Passing civilians are often the worst affected. In May, 130 Afghans died in the blasts and 288 were wounded. Bombs are often crudely set from relics of 30 years of war in Afghanistan. Old anti-tank mines, mortar bombs or artillery shells are buried beneath roads or hidden in culverts at night and detonated by command wire. Those planting the bombs in Jelrez are often motivated by money rather than ideology, said Lt Rick Chersicla, stationed at outpost Conlon. "I don't think there are any Taliban here, just people who they pay more than they can ever hope to earn in a year and they can't turn it down," Lt Chersicla said. A graveyard of wrecked military vehicles outside a nearby forward operating base called Airborne is a further reminder of the risks. Humvee armoured jeeps and M-Raps sit crippled and abandoned, with wheels, doors and axles twisted or removed by huge explosive forces. The men of Lt Chersicla's platoon know the story of each crew and whether it had a miraculous escape or suffered horrific injures and deaths. The growing reliance on armoured vehicles means on average only one IED in six causes a US casualty. But the armour has its limits. In a mountainous country of twisting, remote tracks and few paved roads, there are many places cumbersome vehicles cannot go. "For us it's when we get off the main roads that this issue really comes up," Capt Crowe said. Soldiers are more on edge when forsaking the protection of M-Raps for the manoeuvrable, but fragile Humvees. A blast that would bounce off an armoured vehicle would "turn a Humvee inside out", they said. On June 1, four men from another unit died in the nearby Nerkh valley when a Humvee was destroyed by a bomb hidden along an unpaved road. A second Humvee was hit going to their aid. Arguments over the suitability of British equipment were reignited when Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe was killed travelling in a lightly armoured Viking vehicle in a resupply convoy in Helmand province on July 1. * The National