Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: Facing off with IEDs

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.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Tech. Sgt. Anthony Campbell Jr. left his base at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan to go on an operation with British special forces.

The 35-year-old bomb technician was a member of a United States Air Force Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, one of the military’s frontline bomb squads.

It was Dec. 15, and Campbell and three other men on the EOD team were helping the special forces unit to capture a suspected Taliban operative. Campbell’s team was tasked with clearing the path to the village where the operative was located. It was considered likely that the perimeter was mined or booby-trapped so they studied the ground for command wires or buried explosives, and walked slowly.

Campbell and his unit were deployed late last year to serve on the frontlines of a new effort to counter the deadly effects of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in southern Afghanistan, and to try to stay one step ahead of the Taliban's efforts to use IEDs to cripple the troop surge and break the supply lines for the U.S. and coalition forces.

The members of these bomb disposal units, who every day live in the real life of the Oscar-nominated Iraq War movie “The Hurt Locker,” are on the cutting edge of the U.S. military’s escalation of troops in Afghanistan. The success — or failure — of the surge of 30,000 troops now flowing into Afghanistan will largely depend on whether or not they can stay ahead of the Taliban.

Campbell and his EOD team led the way into the Afghan village where the suspected Taliban operative was hiding. They split into two pairs. The team leader used a metal detector to search for IEDs as Campbell covered him with his weapon. It’s not clear what happened next; the bomb squad may have taken fire, in which case Campbell would have returned fire to protect his team. What is known is that there was an explosion. Campbell had stepped on a pressure plate IED. The technical sergeant was killed instantly, his team leader was seriously wounded. The other two men received less severe wounds.

campbell funeral
From the funeral for Technical Sergeant Anthony Campbell Jr.
(Carrie Cochran/Cincinnati Enquirer)

Campbell was just one of the 275 U.S. and NATO troops killed in IED strikes last year in Afghanistan, where the homemade bombs now cause more than 60 percent of all casualties. So far in 2010, more than 70 percent of those U.S. and coalition troops killed in Afghanistan have been in IED attacks, at a rate of more than one per day, according to

Campbell was a long time Air Force Reservist who had just started duty as a Cincinnati Police Officer two weeks before he was called up for active duty in July 2009, and deployed in the fall. He was originally slated to be stationed at a U.S. base in the United Arab Emirates, but volunteered to spend his tour in the violent southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

“He was really excited about that. He loved it,” said one of Campbell’s best friends, Chris Terrell. Terrell grew up with Campbell in northern Kentucky, and as a fellow serviceman, followed him into EOD school. He said he ribbed Campbell about being deployed to the United Arab Emirates, a place that EOD techs view as a cushy post far from the frontline action.

“Some guys don’t mind going to the U.A.E. But Tony wasn’t that type. He always wanted something more out of life,” the 36-year-old Terrell said, chain smoking Marlboro Lights at his home in a suburban subdivision outside Cincinnati. Terrell said he and Campbell had been best friends since 6th grade.

Campbell left behind three children and a wife in Florence, Kentucky. In a letter to mourners, Campbell’s wife wrote that EOD had become “a passion for Tony, far above what he ever imagined; he wouldn't have changed a thing.”

The U.S. military declined to offer more details on the events that led to Campbell’s death. This version was relayed by Terrell, who was also one of the family friends the Campbells asked to speak for the family after the incident. Terrell is currently an EOD technician with the Kentucky Air National Guard, and will deploy to Afghanistan in January 2011.

At the funeral a few days before Christmas, the Air Force posthumously awarded Campbell the Bronze Star with Valor, the Purple Heart and the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

At Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, his picture would soon join those of other EOD operators killed in the line of duty at the base of Joint Task Force Paladin South, the counter-IED unit Campbell was attached to.

“It brings it back home,” said one of Campbell’s bosses in Kandahar, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Laurie Richter, two days after his death. The experienced EOD officer’s eyes watered and voice trembled.

“You know everybody in the community and so it’s really tight knit.”

Campbell’s unit, Joint Task Force Paladin, had just opened its southern, regional headquarters (thus, Paladin-South) in Kandahar to help collect and centralize information in the battle against IEDs. Their base, which in December consisted of tents surrounded by armored vehicles at Kandahar Airfield, is getting a $2 million facelift, complete with a concrete building to house the unit’s headquarters.

The new branch of Paladin is just one part of a new counter-IED "surge" that the U.S.-led coalition, called ISAF, for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, has initiated in southern Afghanistan. The efforts include increasing the number of troops who clear IEDs from roads to insure freedom of movement — a key element to the success of this spring’s planned surge. The increase will also mean more IED trainers to educate regular soldiers about dealing with IEDs. New counter-IED teams, specialized in forensics and evidence collection, have begun to deploy to battalions in theater with the goal of targeting networks of bomb makers and builders.

Those efforts are badly needed. Since 2007 in Afghanistan, IED “events” have more than tripled to more than 7,228 IED incidents in 2009, which resulted in 6,037 deaths and injuries, according to the U.S. military.

Officers at ISAF say IED attacks have steadily increased as insurgents have found them to be simple, cheap and effective weapons. They kill and maim soldiers, limit the coalition’s freedom of movement, eat up valuable resources and score propaganda points for the insurgents.

The IED is now the Taliban’s and other insurgents’ weapon of choice. In a December report titled “The State of the Insurgency,” ISAF’s head of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, compared the IED’s ability to inflict damage and weaken the will of ISAF to that of the U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles the Afghan mujahedeen used against Soviet helicopters in the 1980s.

“This is asymmetric warfare using a weapon that is of low cost, is relatively easy to emplace, relatively easy to construct and difficult to detect at times,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Rick Hayes, the commander of Joint Task Force Paladin-South.

In 2009, 67 percent of all of Afghanistan’s IED “events” — meaning every IED incident and discovery — occurred in the six southern provinces that make up ISAF’s Regional Command South, or RC-South, which includes Helmand and Kandahar, the two most violent provinces in the country. There are around 20 to 30 IED events per day here, according to Col. Mark Lee, RC-South’s counter-IED coordinator.

“We find about 60 percent that are emplaced,“ Lee said. “We have to be perfect; we have to find every IED. But the insurgents just have to be lucky and put one out there that we miss.”

Those missed IEDs mean that for the 43,000 U.S. and NATO troops deployed in RC-South, it’s no longer a question of if, but when, they’re going to hit an IED.

“I’ve only been blown up once this tour,” said U.S. Army Spc. Mike McCoy, 22, who said his platoon had been hit “eight or nine times” by IEDs six months into their year-long tour with the 1-12 Infantry in Kandahar province. He was not injured in the attack.

Afghanistan’s bomb makers, like any good IED maker from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Al Qaeda in Iraq, build IEDs with readily available, cheap material to make the bombs. In Afghanistan, that material is fertilizer, specifically ammonium nitrate, the same substance Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, operations chief for RC-South, estimates that 90 percent of all IEDs in southern Afghanistan are made with ammonium nitrate. The substance is usually mixed with a little fuel oil or diesel to increase explosiveness. A detonator is employed to ignite the device.

IEDs are, by definition, easy to manufacture and have been used in unconventional or guerrilla warfare for at least a century. The first IED in modern history is generally regarded to be the metal pipe bomb that killed eight police officers and set off the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886.

That basic, effective weapon has evolved through the years to be used by small insurgent groups against regular armies. They were used by T.E. Lawrence to blow up Turkish trains in Arabia during World War I. The Vietcong used booby-trapped IEDs against dismounted U.S. troops to great effect during the Vietnam War.

The British developed some of the first counter-IED teams in response to Irish Republican Army attacks on troops in Northern Ireland.

Hezbollah famously killed the Israeli commander in charge of occupation forces in South Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, with an IED in 1999. The group also employed the devices very effectively against Israeli troops, helping lead to Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000.

The American experience in Iraq showed that an IED can be delivered in a variety of ways. In the span of a few short years, Americans became familiar with the SVBIED (suicide vehicle borne-IED, or car bomb), the HBIED (house-borne IED) and bicycle-, donkey- and even dog-borne IEDs.

But Iraq in many ways was, and still is an urban war on highways and paved streets. Insurgents positioned roadside bombs in trash along the road, under the cement, or on the sides of overpasses and on guardrails.

Initially in Iraq, the insurgents used artillery rounds or anti-tank mines tied together. But as U.S. troops began receiving and using armored humvees, the insurgents adapted. They began building sophisticated, armor-piercing “explosively formed penetrators.” The weapons needed to be manufactured in a machine shop, which led to accusations from the U.S. military that Iran was helping provide the weapons. At the same time, the insurgents began burying huge bombs in the ground to attack the soft underbelly of the U.S. military’s armored vehicles.

By May and June of 2007, the peak of the violence, there were an average 60 IED events per day in Iraq. The makeshift weapons were responsible for 83 percent of U.S. troops’ deaths.

The U.S. military’s troop surge, the widespread development of Sunni Awakening Councils and a cease-fire between the Iraqi government and Muqtada Sadr helped lessen violence soon thereafter. IED attacks against U.S. troops decreased dramatically during the next two years.

But at the same time, IED incidents in Afghanistan increased. For the first time last year, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The simple ammonium nitrate bomb has been the number one killer of U.S. and coalition troops there.

“These are exceptionally crude but lethal devices,” Lee said. “It’s simple to make, and they make a lot. And that’s really the challenge: the number of devices we are encountering.”

In an effort to combat the bombs, the Afghan government outlawed the fertilizer ammonium nitrate, which ISAF says is only used by about 5 percent of farmers in Afghanistan. Lee says the ban could “change the nature of the fight.”

“He won’t be able to make as many [IEDs] and he won’t be able to make them as big,” he said.

Other tactics to mitigate IEDs' effectiveness came with the U.S. military’s new MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. The MRAP sits higher off the ground, has a V-shaped hull that deflects explosions and thicker armor to stop shrapnel. The vehicles are equipped with radio jammers and heavy rollers set off the front of the vehicle to explode pressure plates. Some have ground-penetrating radar.

But as the U.S. and its coalition allies have come up with new tactics, equipment, vehicles and intelligence gathering techniques, the insurgents have countered much of it with some simple modifications to the IEDs. Counter-IED troops refer to it as the “cat and mouse game.”

“They see what we do to counter their efforts, and then they respond to it,” said Chief Warrant Officer Andrew Levy, a counter-IED trainer at TF Paladin-South. “We try to provide ourselves the ability to look ahead and predict where they’re going to go with it.”

But it’s hard to defeat some of these incredibly simple changes — the most lethal of which has simply been building bigger bombs.

In May 2008 the majority of IEDs were 25 pounds and under. Now, they’ve grown to more than 25 pounds, with 500 to 1,500 pounds being used to destroy the new generation of armored vehicles like MRAPs. The dirt roads in Afghanistan make it possible to install bigger bombs that can be concealed easily. And the few asphalt roads that do exist don’t stop the patient and determined bombers: Several of the huge bombs this year were emplaced by insurgents who tunneled from the side of the road and took days or weeks to build up a big bomb.

“They’re going for bigger charges with bulk explosive, that’s what’s causing all the casualties,” Lee said.

Also, as U.S. and coalition forces have mounted radio and cell phone jammers on vehicles to stop insurgents from using those to detonate trigger devices, insurgents now mainly use a wire that connects the IED to the detonator, called a “command wire.”

And when the blasts from IEDs aren’t deadly, the wounds have changed due to the better armored vehicles and the massive charges needed to destroy them.

Instead of lacerations, the troops who survive massive explosions in heavily armored vehicles suffer more brain injuries, called TBI for Traumatic Brain Injury, and spinal damage.

U.S. Army Pfc. Andrew Jay’s two encounters with IEDs have knocked him out and blew his eardrums. A vehicle gunner who sits in the turret exposed to the blast, Jay’s injuries did not appear serious enough to keep him out of service in Afghanistan. He says the deepest wound is psychological.

“The worst part about getting blown up isn’t getting blown up,” he said. “It’s waiting for the next time, because you have all that paranoia.”

It’s not any safer outside the vehicles. The bomb makers and emplacers have been using “Victim Operated” pressure plate IEDs (VOIED) against both vehicles and troops patrolling on foot. Sometimes the devices are rigged as secondary devices to target troops after an initial explosion or ambush draws them out of vehicles and into a “kill zone.”

The pressure plate operated IEDs have had another gruesome result: More Afghan civilians are killed than coalition troops in RC-South, said Lee. The devices don’t discriminate, and when an unarmored Afghan bus or truck goes over it, the results are devastating.

“You see horrible results when a Toyota Cruiser goes into a 400-pound charge,” he said.

When troops using metal detectors began to find the pressure plates because the bomb trigger used big pieces of metal like saw blades as electrical contacts, insurgents turned to smaller metal filaments on pieces of wood or plastic.

To try to stop IEDs from being emplaced, ISAF has committed additional resources toward attacking the networks of people who fund, make, emplace and detonate IEDs. Lee said from caches his troops have found, there is evidence of some kind of “production system.”

“It’s localized distribution,” he said. “The production is almost at cottage industry level, where they make 10 and put 10 out.”

In order to target the networks, the Pentagon is now deploying six-man “counter-IED teams” to every battalion command in a new “Operation Tidal Sun.”

U.S. Army Capt. Jackson Salter was one of the first to be deployed in the new offensive. Soldiers joke that his work is like the TV Show, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” because of the police-type evidence collection and forensics techniques he employs.

The point of the counter-IED teams is to get “left of the boom,” which means focusing on “everything that happens before an IED is emplaced and goes off,” said Salter. “The counter-IED team’s role is the first line of defense in [terms of] targeting the emplacers and manufacturers of IEDs.”

The counter-IED unit will “exploit” a device — figure out how it was made and how it was used, and ship their research and evidence to CEXE (Combined Explosives Exploitation) units. The CEXE teams conduct most of the forensic investigation work at bigger U.S. bases in Afghanistan like Kandahar. The evidence is then used to identify bomb makers, and hopefully either arrest or kill them. The data collected could also help to come up with new ways to defend against the device.

“The best bomb is one that’s never made,” said Lee. “We have U.S. and Afghan troops who are fearless and they do fantastic job once the IED is emplaced. But the best defense is to change the game, and not let them make the IEDs.”

Cmdr. Hayes from Task Force Paladin South says using crime fighting techniques is new for the U.S. military, which is usually focused on “force on force” fighting. Now, he says the attitude is that police investigation techniques and detective work employed to get criminal networks off the streets of the U.S. can also be used against insurgent networks in Afghanistan.

“We’re taking those lessons learned, teaching them to our soldiers, and employing some of these law enforcement professionals to help our forces eliminate the networks from the battlefields here, like they would from any U.S. city,” Hayes said.

But those fights are not without a cost. Hodges, the operations chief for RC-South, said probably 20 percent of his resources go to ensuring freedom of movement, of which IEDs are the biggest enemy.

Hodges said ISAF’s mission is not to fight IEDs, but to protect the population. He optimistically says that once the counterinsurgency doctrine now being employed by ISAF works to secure population centers, it will be more difficult for the Taliban and other insurgents to find people to build and emplace IEDs.

“Our mission is not to defeat the IED, it is to protect the Afghan people,” Hodges said. “So if we can accomplish our mission of protecting the population … that will take care of a large percentage of the IED threat.”

But in addition to that strategy, and until the insurgency is routed, Hodges and his RC-South ISAF staff have some valuable tools at their disposal in the IED fight.

Combined Joint Task Force Paladin created its southern branch last year. The country-wide unit was created in 2007 to help coordinate the counter IED effort in all of Afghanistan, and is a subordinate unit of the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO. JIEDDO was set up as the Pentagon’s overarching counter-IED unit in 2006 after years of piecemeal efforts to combat the devices. Since 2004, more than $7 billion has been spent by the U.S. military in an effort to defeat IEDs, with much of it going to JEIDDO, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

JIEDDO’s mission is three fold, and reflected in the unit’s slogan: “Attack the Network. Defeat the Device. Train the Force.”

Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: The series

Defeat the device: Searching for bombs with Task Force Thor

Attack the network: Blowback from clearing Highway One

Editor's note: This story was updated to make several clarifications.