BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AP) — Strategically buried in the middle of dirt roads, packed in culverts and attached to trip wires, a heightened hidden danger awaits the thousands of U.S. troops pouring into Afghanistan to fight a tenacious Taliban.
The U.S. military expects a 50 percent spike this year in roadside and suicide bombings, which surpassed the number of similar strikes in Iraq during the spring. These types of bombs killed 172 coalition forces last year — and far more Afghan civilians — according to military figures.
"We don't hide the truth from them. We tell them if you are going to be killed or injured in Afghanistan, it is probably going to be by an IED," said Command Sgt. Maj. David Puig, 51, of Fort Lewis, Wash.
The dramatic rise in these attacks — and the insurgents' skill in placing and camouflaging the bombs — complicates the U.S. mission as the Obama administration searches for a fresh approach against the insurgency with the appointment this week of a new commander, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Troops who have served previous tours in Afghanistan, when the Taliban insurgency wasn't so violent, say they now confront far more improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Sgt. 1st Class Jason Sabatke, part of a group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers who moved into Wardak province this year, said his unit is "basically driving around playing minesweeper."
"This is my third tour here," said Sabatke, 32, of Merrill, Wis. "And we've had more IED strikes, or attempts, or found IEDs in the past three or four months than we had the previous two deployments combined. It sucks, to be blatantly honest. I'd rather have them try to shoot at us."
Roadside or suicide bombings are up 25 percent the first four months of 2009 compared with the same period last year, said Col. Jeffrey Jarkowsky, commander of Joint Task Force Paladin, the counter-IED unit at the main U.S. base at Bagram.
The task force predicts bomb attacks will rise 50 percent this year to 5,700 — up from 3,800 last year.
Attacks "will ramp up in the summer to where it will be an increase of maybe 60 percent one month and will average out to 50 percent," Jarkowsky told The Associated Press.
Seeking to mimic the success Iraqi insurgents had with roadside bombs, militants in Afghanistan last year began using bigger charges that can rip a Humvee apart. Jarkowsky said Iraqi bombs are more sophisticated but Afghan insurgents are "extremely clever" in how they place and camouflage them.
"One tactic we've seen is the employment of multiple IEDs, to maximize casualties," he said.
Afghanistan still sees nowhere near the number of IEDs as in Iraq in 2007, when bomb incidents — found or detonated — peaked at more than 2,500 a month. But while attacks have fallen in Iraq since then, bombings in Afghanistan have risen steadily since 2005.
Although far more U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq than Afghanistan, troops here faced more of these bombs each of the last two months. In April, for instance, Paladin counted 407 IED incidents aimed at coalition troops in Afghanistan, compared with 346 in Iraq.
In March, 19 coalition forces died in bomb attacks in Afghanistan, compared with none in Iraq. Those numbers reversed in April, when 12 coalition troops died in Iraq, while six died in Afghanistan, according to the U.S.-based Joint IED Defeat Organization.
An AP tally shows slightly different numbers. According to information in Pentagon statements, 11 coalition forces were killed in IED attacks and other explosions in Afghanistan in March, compared with two in Iraq; in April, nine coalition forces were killed in such attacks in Iraq, compared with five in Afghanistan.
To counter the threat, every American service member receives IED training at Bagram, where Jarkowsky's team has classrooms, a bomb-rigged field and a warehouse planted with bomb-filled culverts, trip wires and a disabled motorcycle weighed down with explosives.
The unit trained tens of thousands of troops last year. This year, newly arriving Marines stationed in the south — part of the 21,000 troops President Barack Obama is sending to join the 38,000 already in place — are receiving training at Kandahar Air Field.
"The training absolutely helps. Every time we go out, we know the kinds of things to look for," Sgt. Matthew Gallagher, 21, of Fayetteville, N.C., said on a recent patrol in Wardak province.
Most troops who have served in Iraq were trained to look on the side of the paved roads for IEDs. In Afghanistan, Puig said, most bombs are buried in the middle of the dirt roads to strike the underbelly of vehicles.
The Taliban are clearly adapting to U.S. technology. In response to electronic jammers that can defuse detonation devices on radio-controlled bombs, insurgents are turning to other types of weapons. They are using more command-wire IEDs, detonated by a militant near the bomb, or pressure-plate IEDs, bombs that are triggered when vehicles drive over them.
"As long as there is an insurgency there will be IEDs. There is no silver bullet in this fight," Jarkowsky said. "But we can suppress it" and reduce casualties.
Insurgents last year had to place four IEDs for every successful strike against coalition troops, Jarkowsky said. This year, because of increased training and counter measures, the ratio has risen to five to one, he said.
One military asset that can help defeat bomb blasts is a relatively new vehicle called the MRAP — which stands for mine-resistant ambush-protected. Jarkowsky said the military hopes to have the majority of troops in MRAPs by the end of next year, though Humvees may be needed to travel steep mountain roads.
One soldier at Bagram, Sgt. Warren Wright, 26, of Iron River, Mich., praised the IED training.
"I only wish we could have had more of it," he said. "Out of everything that can happen here getting hit by an IED is the scariest."