Afghan IED sweepers face cunning Taliban enemy

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An Afghan soldier with a metal detector scans a road for the biggest killer they face in the war against the Taliban -- an improvised explosive device (IED).

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers take part in an improvised explosive device (IED) detection training course at Camp Hero in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan June 3, 2010. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

“Don’t look around you, look down,” his commander barks during a training session.

After a two-week course lasting five hours a day, he and other Afghan army engineers will be sent out to the battlefield, where Taliban militants are becoming more cunning by the day.

“IEDs are constantly a threat out there...,” said Canadian Captain Peter Davidson, one of the mentors of the Afghan-led training programme. “It’s a cat and mouse game.”

The problem is novice Afghan army engineers, arguably doing the most vital job in the nine-year war, will soon face an enemy that has mastered the art of bomb-making and becoming more creative.

Last month General George Casey, U.S. Army chief of staff, said more than 60 percent of the roughly 400 attacks in one week in Afghanistan were the result of roadside bombs.

Data released by the Pentagon showed 1,059 IED incidents in April, one of the highest monthly numbers on record and more than double the amount in April 2009.

A shortage of bomb disposal experts -- made famous in the Oscar-winning film Hurt Locker set in Iraq -- has added to the problems of NATO and Afghan forces.

The British army’s top bomb disposal officer resigned last month, a decision the Sun newspaper said was triggered by concern that a shortage of trained experts was putting troops in Afghanistan under strain.

Western military officials say the Afghan army’s performance has improved and they are expected to play a bigger role in stepped up operations against the Taliban this summer, hoping to improve security ahead of the start of a U.S. troop pullout in 2011.

At Camp Hero, outside the Taliban stronghold Kandahar, Afghan soldiers don’t need reminding of the dangers of IEDs, homemade bombs that are usually scattered along roadsides.

IEDs killed four soldiers in their unit in recent weeks and they have suffered 12 casualties in the last three months.

The Taliban have a variety of ways to kill.

In the training session soldiers pass the metal detector past a disused anti-tank mine rigged with explosives. A cooker stuffed with an explosive device is placed on the side of the road. Then there is a wired, old mortar on display.

One soldier is told to take his weapon off before placing a rock down on a sand mound to mark the location of an IED.

Infantrymen kneel along the side of the road, practising how to keep an eye out for Taliban fighters who may stage an ambush during an IED-sweeping operation.

The Taliban are also now hiding bombs in trees and walls, not just the carcasses of dogs or donkeys. They often plant IEDs in one area and melt away to do the same in another.

The engineers are likely to be frustrated for lack of more sophisticated training and they need more devices to detect IEDs activated by remote-controlled devices.

Western officials say the IED sweepers have made great progress. But it will take time.

“This is not zero to 60 overnight,” said Lt. Travis Smyth, a Canadian military spokesman.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani