The highway that runs between Kabul and the southeastern city of Kandahar is the most brutal evidence of the Taliban's IED offensive. The road is a showcase U.S.-funded project, meant to connect two of the country's most vital commercial centers. But today it is an automotive graveyard, littered with burned-out carcasses of vehicles and disrupted by crumbled bridges. One infamous stretch is lined with the wreckage of 40 transport trucks, the remains of a 90-minute enemy ambush dubbed the "jingle-truck massacre." (Afghans hang chains and coins from their truck bumpers, which create a jingling sound.) Every few miles, craters of varying size pock the pavement, interspersed with suspicious patches of dirt that compel patrol convoys to make off-road detours or dismount to investigate before proceeding.
Outmatched in frontal combat, the militants have taken a cue from Iraqi counterparts in making IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, their weapon of choice. While their use has declined in Iraq, IEDs are now taking a deadlier toll on coalition forces in Afghanistan. The latest NATO figures show that the use of roadside bombs is up 80% so far this year, making them the primary killer of U.S. and international troops. In 2008, 172 troops died from a record 3,276 IEDs, a 45% jump from the year before, according to the Joint IED Defeat Organization, a Pentagon agency. This trend is expected to worsen in the months ahead, as thousands of incoming U.S. reinforcements push into areas where the Taliban has operated unchallenged. (See pictures of Afghanistan's deadly Korengal valley.)
The attacks are increasing all over the country. Last week a bomb-and-shoot ambush left three soldiers dead near the main U.S. base in Bagram, about an hour's drive north of Kabul, the third such strike in the area in less than a week. Two days earlier, a pair of bombings in eastern Paktika province killed 10 Afghan security guards traveling in a convoy, underscoring the dangers faced by Afghan forces who too often remain underequipped and overexposed. (Watch a video on the challenge for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.)
Along with the frequency of road attacks, military officers say the power of the bombs employed has gone "way up." Twenty-pound charges have been replaced by oil drums packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives, set off by trip wires and pressure plates, that are capable of reducing up-armored humvees to pieces. Under cover of darkness, IED teams burrow deep under the tarmac or wheelbarrow bombs into rain culverts, which number into the thousands in some provinces, spread out over hundreds of miles of road.
Faced with high technology and drones, the Taliban has resorted to its own innovations. When the militants ruled in Afghanistan, it was common to find spools of discarded cassette tape hanging from tree branches as a warning against banned pop music. They've since devised more lethal uses for the recording medium. After a recent roadside bombing of an American convoy in Ghazni province that killed three Afghan police officers, streams of tape were found ahead of the blast crater. The reflective quality of the tape, soldiers said, had allowed militant spotters to be forewarned of the arrival of enemy forces and to time the explosion from afar. Once the detonation cord was traced back to a village compound, the bombers were long gone.
Even in daylight, it's difficult to identify likely IED emplacers. "Every other guy in Afghanistan has a shovel over his shoulder," says Lieut. Colonel Tony Demartino, commander of the Army 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, referring to the tools carried by day laborers involved in repairs and rural reconstruction projects. "The insurgents are able to exploit this with ease."
Most of the construction-grade explosives are smuggled in from Pakistan, intelligence officials say. There are, however, some troubling exceptions. One U.S. military officer in Afghanistan explained that, over the summer, coalition convoys transiting through Wardak province were being targeted with unusually powerful bombs. Some of the explosives recovered from weapons caches in the area bore Chinese markings, identical to those being used by contractors working on a new road through a hostile river valley. It was later learned that employees had sold ordnance to local insurgents in exchange for security guarantees.
To cope with the growing threat, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, has become a staple of patrols. The hulking personnel carrier is equipped with a V-shaped hull to absorb and disperse the impact of most roadside bombs and keep rolling. Some argue they are too hefty for the Afghan terrain, but many officers swear MRAPs have saved lives. There are plans to introduce a lighter version.
At the same time, Task Force Paladin, a counter-IED unit created by the Pentagon, deploys bomb specialists who monitor and defuse roadway threats downrange. Its arsenal includes radio jammers to neutralize remote-controlled devices, as well as radars that can locate mines beneath the surface. According to TF Paladin's commander, Colonel Jeffrey Jarkowsky, such improvements have reduced IED effectiveness in terms of casualties 20% over the past year.
Meanwhile, better surveillance technology is catching the enemy in the act. Balloon cameras afloat along the most at-risk stretches of road now keep 24-hour watch. When bomb teams are caught on roads at odd hours of the night, unmanned aerial drones can be summoned to strike with Hellfire missiles within half an hour. Demartino says that during one week last summer, six IED teams were killed this way, one of which was comprised of Pakistani Taliban. It was a "train the trainer" team that was moving around the region to teach locals how to emplace bombs, he says. Once the team was eliminated, the attack rate dropped more than 50%.
More eyes in the sky are needed to prowl the backcountry, but the military concedes that fancy technology is no substitute for human intelligence-gathering. In one instance, as another U.S. officer explains, a tower camera relayed live footage of what appeared to be an IED team busy at work after midnight. Approval was quickly secured for a drone strike. Then, to gain a fuller picture, the camera zoomed out to reveal a brickmaking factory just a few feet away. It was the Islamic fasting holiday of Ramadan, and the energy-depleted laborers were working late to avoid the sun.
Jason Motlagh's travel to Afghanistan and South Asia was funded by the nonprofit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.