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Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: Alienating locals

On Afghanistan's Highway One, the US military strategy to prevent roadside bombs is killing civilians.

Police inspect the wreckage of a police car which was hit by a roadside bomb in Lashkar Gah, Feb. 21, 2008. (Abdul Qodus/Reuters)

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.