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In Afghanistan, US troops thwart IED threat

With new technology and close monitoring of culverts and ditches, they have reduced the rudimentary bombs' effectiveness by 20 percent since last year.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2009

A trainer talks to a group of soldiers about mined bridges at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan in this April 29, 2009 photo. New techniques and technologies have reduced casualties from IEDs in the past year.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP

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Saydabad, Afghanistan

Capt. Matthew Burnett and his men were patrolling the dangerous Kabul-Kandahar highway when their vehicle hit the one thing every soldier dreads – an improvised explosive device (IED).

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"There was a big explosion, and we lost all visibility," he recalls. "Some roadside debris even landed in the vehicle."

But the troops emerged unscathed, and kept on driving – something unthinkable a few years ago. Captain Burnett and his men survived thanks to the MRAP, a new armored vehicle capable of withstanding very large blasts.

The vehicle is one of many innovations the United States military has developed to stay ahead of the insurgents, who readily adapt to American technology. New gadgets and techniques like the MRAP are also crucial to counter the soaring troop casualty rate in Afghanistan.

New methods reduce IEDs' effectiveness

IEDs have become the weapon of choice for insurgents, who generally don't stand a chance against foreign troops in conventional warfare. Crudely made and easy to install – packed under the roadside or stuffed in culverts, and detonated with trip wires or pressure-plates – they have dramatically transformed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In 2008, the rebels used a record 3,276 IEDs, a 45 percent jump from the year before, according to figures from the Joint IED Defeat Organization, a Pentagon agency tasked with stopping the attacks. Roadside bombs killed a record 175 foreign troops, nearly 60 percent of the total.

This year, troop casualty numbers continue to increase. Through April, 69 percent more soldiers were killed than during the same period last year. And military officials predict that IED activity will increase another 50 percent this year.

In an effort to reverse these trends, US forces created Joint Task Force Paladin, headquartered at Bagram Airforce Base. Paladin, formed two years ago, is responsible for coordinating the collection of intelligence and training about the IED threat. It also facilitates the introduction of new technology, such as the MRAP.

"It's a synchronized effort, where we manage the IED threat across the theater," explains Col. Jeffrey Jarkowsky, the commander of Paladin. Thanks to such efforts, the effectiveness of IEDs (measured by the ratio of IEDs used to casualties induced) has decreased by 20 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to Colonel Jarkowsky.

A V-shaped hull to divert bombs' force

The Task Force coordinates training for troops to detect IEDs, which Jarkowsky says is often the most effective means of protection. With detailed training both back home and here in theater, many troops have become experts at spotting the devices.

On a typical vehicle patrol through Wardak Province, just south of Kabul, for example, a reconnaissance convoy snakes along the highway, checking every culvert and ditch. Meanwhile, soldiers riding in MRAPs behind the reconnaissance team scan the roadside for any sign of irregularity.

"Watch the dirt pile on the right," cautions one soldier into the radio.