Roadside Attractions

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HELMAND - The blackened crater on the road from Goreshk to Lashkar Gah is enough to give anyone pause. Some pause to ogle -- the British MP in my armored vehicle was downright excited to be passing a strike site so large -- but others pause to shudder. The pit was big enough to swallow half a Volkswagen (or a whole Tata Nano), and it had claimed the lives of ISAF soldiers less than a week before.

Soon after our convoy passed the pit, we approached the fresh, twisted wreckage of an Afghan National Army truck. It had driven over a bomb just after dawn, and all five occupants had been killed and buried hastily by the roadside. The British and Afghans determined that some explosive charge still remained, so they halted the whole convoy and we waited for arrangements for a controlled explosion.

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It's hard to appreciate how devilish these devices are until you watch one blow. I first saw a controlled explosion of an IED ten years ago, when I worked at The Cambodia Daily. An occasional trick among Phnom Penh goons was to rig up one of the country's millions of scattered landmines and put it under a rival's tire, to be driven over when he pulled out of his parking spot. The rival spotted the device, and hours later a bomb squad came and detonated it in situ with spectators gathered a few blocks away. I expected a loud firecracker-boom, followed by a little puff of dust and golf claps from the assembled onlookers. Instead, the boom arrived like a thief, stealing my senses from two hundred meters, rattling my eyes in their sockets, and flinging a huge cloud of dust and sand over me and the rest of the fleeing crowd. It was, quite simply, a concentration of force unlike anything most of us have ever seen, unless we work in demolitions.

Here's a controlled explosion at an Afghan arms dump:

In Helmand, during the time I was waiting by the roadside, the main casualty was time. When they arrived hours after we came upon the scene, the British sappers expertly detonated the leftover bomb components. The experience resembled Phnom Penh, but this time I stayed back a safer distance, far enough to feel a rush of radiant heat at the instant of the explosion, and then a boom only a split second later. Even at the distance I kept -- a few hundred meters -- little particles rained on us, the largest a light but jagged metal shard the size of a playing card, which tumbled headlong and harmless into the sand about ten feet away from where I stood.

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IEDs are among the least tractable problems precisely because the are among the most simple. Last month, before the Marines pushed into Helmand, US Marine Lt. Col. Scott Fosdal put the problem to me starkly: "We can put more armor on our vehicles, but they can just use bigger bombs." It is difficult to see how the situation does not favor the insurgent, both tactically and strategically. With predictable speed, the Marine Helmand operation has gone from what military types like to call "kinetic" (i.e., lots of guns being fired and bombs blowing up) to more sedate. This second stage is, paradoxically, almost as dangerous as the first, because the Taliban favor roadside bombs and have progressed beyond the journeyman stage in their craftsmanship. As ISAF and the Afghan National Army plant roots and begin trying to hold Helmand -- a province the size of West Virginia, and even better armed -- they need convoys to bring supplies, and road patrols to maintain a security presence between villages. Every one of these movements is vulnerable. Just last week, a roadside bomb in Lashkar Gah killed Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the highest-ranking British combat death since the Falklands.

For the price of today's one bomb -- a large one -- the Taliban bought the lives of five men, and the time of dozens more. This scene will be repeated hundreds more times in months and years ahead.

The destroyed ANA vehicle. Photo by Anup Kaphle

Shortly after the controlled blast. Photo by Anup Kaphle

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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