The Fort Lewis Stryker brigade serving in southern Afghanistan faces myriad challenges: hostile terrain, a daunting mission, an entrenched enemy and soldiers publicly criticizing their command.
But the ever-present threat of the roadside bomb overshadows all.
Twenty-nine of the 30 soldiers reported lost to 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division since it deployed in July were killed in bomb attacks. The most recent casualty reported by the Stryker brigade, Staff Sgt. David H. Gutierrez, was memorialized Monday at Fort Lewis. He was killed by a bomb blast on Christmas Day while on foot patrol.
The brigade has encountered almost 600 bombs – known in military circles as an improvised explosive device, or IED. The detonation rate has been about 50 percent.
Twenty-one Stryker vehicles have been damaged beyond repair.
“It’s an increasing and significant threat, but there’s also an increasing and significant effort to defeat it,” said Col. Jeffrey Jarkowsky, who last year commanded Joint Task Force-Paladin, the American military’s main counter-IED unit in Afghanistan.
“That being said, we’ve got to do more,” Jarkowsky said. “We’ve clearly got to do more.”
The roadside bomb has become the Taliban’s signature weapon throughout Afghanistan. About 85 percent of NATO troops who have died in Afghanistan were killed because of IED attacks. A shift in technology to pressure-plate detonations and fertilizer explosives has made the production cheaper and the attacks harder to defeat.
And while the technology and funding to prevent bomb attacks has improved amid the Obama administration’s order to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, many feel the resources to turn back the threat are less than what their comrades in Iraq have received.
Jarkowski saw the gaps up close while he was leading the counter-IED task force in Afghanistan until late last year.
“There was insufficient forces to conduct the fight,” which would include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said Jarkowsky, now the operations officer at the military’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
IEDs have become the signature weapon throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents have hidden bombs in just about everything – potholes, culverts, trash piles, cars, houses, animal carcasses. They detonate them as American military vehicles pass.
For Fort Lewis troops in Iraq, the toll taken by bombs peaked in the spring and summer of 2007. In the last 22 months, however, only one local soldier serving in Iraq has been reported killed in an explosion.
The use and defeat of roadside bombs is a cat-and-mouse game. As U.S. forces learned to prevent the detonation of more sophisticated bombs, insurgents in Iraq countered with better technology.
The U.S. military then rolled out better technology of its own. Radio jammers were used to stop remote-controlled detonations. Heating coils were mounted to poles attached to Army vehicles to set off explosively formed penetrators.
In Afghanistan, the technology change worked in reverse.
As the Americans learned to defeat radio-detonated bombs, insurgents switched to bombs primarily detonated by pressure plates, Jarkowsky said. The use of command-wire bombs, in which a triggerman watches from afar and completes an electrical circuit to detonate the bomb, also has increased in Afghanistan.
“After we defeated his radio-controlled devices, the enemy took a technological step backwards – the pressure plate,” Jarkowsky said. “He went to a piece of unsophisticated technology that our sophisticated technology couldn’t immediately counter.”
A change in the components that create the bombs also has allowed for stronger, more deadly attacks.
The use of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate has replaced anti-tank mines and other military-grade munitions.
“The homemade explosives allow them to get a really big charge,” Jarkowsky said. “We’ve seen them migrate from single anti-tank mines or 5 pounds of explosives to 80, 90, 100 pounds of homemade, fertilizer-based explosives.”
No blast 5th Brigade encountered was as big as the explosion that killed seven soldiers on Oct. 27. That bomb reportedly contained more than 1,000 pounds of explosives.
The unit’s assistant intelligence officer overseeing its counter-IED effort stressed that the attack was an anomaly.
“It had been in place for a while and was part of a defensive belt that was never meant for us,” Capt. Robert Richardson said. “In other words: Wrong place, wrong time on our part.”
The number of 5th Brigade casualties has dropped dramatically in the past two months. Officials say they are better trained and equipped to deal with IEDs these days.
The drop in violence also coincides with a new mission for the brigade. Its soldiers were pulled from the bloody Arghandab Valley and reassigned to secure southern Afghanistan’s major roadways.
KNOWLEDGE BY INSURGENTS
U.S. forces have route-clearance teams that sweep the roads for bombs and explosive ordnance disposal teams that destroy IEDs. American troops also target individuals crucial to the manufacture of IEDs and work to disrupt the supply network.
“The further we get in, we get better at finding them,” Richardson said
But Afghanistan is in its third consecutive decade of war, and the Taliban know how to effectively target their enemies. IED technology will shift less than three months after the Americans roll out a new way to counter the bombs.
Insurgents also use their intimate knowledge of Afghanistan’s mountains, valleys, deserts, and primitive roads and other infrastructure to target NATO troops.
“This culture, these warriors, they use terrain as a component of a weapons system,” Richardson said. “It is almost frightening how efficient they are in using the terrain as part of their mechanism. It’s like second nature. They used it against the Russians, they’ve used it for hundreds of years.”
The Taliban’s attacking method might be decades old, but it has also gone global. Groups across the world likely are sharing information on how to create more effective bombs, Jarkowsky said, and some of the parts used to create them are imported.
“Some of the components of the devices, some of them are very clearly coming across the border from Northwest Frontier (province), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan,” he said.
Some parts, he said, are derived from off-the-shelf electronics that are legally imported. Then they are broken down for their bomb-making potential.
MORE TOOLS NEEDED
In Iraq, U.S. generals talk often about the “unblinking eye” – constant surveillance largely through the use of unmanned drone aircraft. By watching events on the ground, military officials can target enemies who plant IEDs before the bombs have a chance to explode under an American vehicle.
Commanders in Afghanistan haven’t received the same funding and equipment as their counterparts in Iraq. Col. Harry Tunnell, the commander of 5th Brigade, told the Washington Times in November that his unit needs more “ISR assets,” the acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Company-level soldiers have bemoaned the lack of route clearance and combat engineer support.
Tunnell’s assistant intelligence officer disagrees.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had access to ISR that when I was here five years ago was inconceivable,” Richardson said. “And when I go on patrol, I see route clearance all the time.”
Jarkowsky said more of these tools are needed throughout the country.
In November, Defense Secretary Robert Gates established a senior-level task force to streamline the efforts of military services and agencies to counter the IED threat.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a news conference in November that the military is speeding to get thousands of new armored vehicles into Afghanistan – as well as thousands of route clearance, bomb disposal and other experts.
The spokesman said that Gates is determined “to make sure we can defeat this IED network, just as we did in Iraq.”
MOST DEVASTATING BOMB BLASTS
Most of the time in the last decade, when multiple Fort Lewis soldiers have died together, it has been the work of an enemy explosive. Here are the worst mass-casualty bombings involving local troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
OCT. 27, 2009 (Afghanistan): Seven soldiers with 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are killed when their Stryker vehicle is hit by a roadside bomb in the Arghandab Valley, in the country’s south. It is the largest loss of life from the local Army post since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
AUG. 25, 2009 (Afghanistan): Four soldiers with 5th Brigade die when a massive bomb hidden in a culvert detonates under their Stryker vehicle in Kandahar province.
AUG. 6, 2007 (Iraq): Four soldiers with 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are killed in an explosion while searching a house in Baqouba, Diyala province.
AUG. 2, 2007 (Iraq): Three 3rd Brigade soldiers are killed instantly, and four more are critically wounded, when their Stryker vehicle is struck by a bomb in Baghdad. One brain-injured soldier holds on for several months before dying in March.
JUNE 3, 2007 (Iraq): Four 3rd Brigade artillerymen die after their armored Humvee is hit by a bomb in Thania, Diyala province.
MAY 6, 2007 (Iraq): Six members of a weapons squad from 3rd Brigade are killed when a bomb buried in the road explodes beneath their Stryker vehicle in Baqouba, Diyala province. Also killed is a Russian photojournalist.
DEC. 21, 2004 (Iraq): Six Fort Lewis soldiers are among 22 people killed when a suicide bomber blows himself up inside a secure dining facility in Mosul, Ninevah province.
Matt Misterek, The News Tribune