Stepping Around IEDs with U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

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Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Specialist Daniel Riggs, left, readies a sniper rifle as Sergeant Curtis Boldman scopes out distant figures suspected of being Taliban militants in Zhari district, west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Oct. 13, 2010

After a hot, tense day of foot patrols behind Taliban lines, a platoon of U.S. Army scouts dropped their 100-lb. (45 kg) rucksacks and spent the night in a pomegranate orchard beneath a starlit sky. For a few hours, it was almost possible to forget they were in a war zone. Then dawn broke, and the ground-shaking explosions resumed as route-clearance teams continued removing the homemade bombs that litter the area's roads. The blasts were a frequent reminder of what might await a soldier's misstep: improvised explosive devices (IEDs), lethal and cunning in their variety, planted by enemy fighters who prefer to stay in the shadows and let the hostile terrain take its toll.

The scouts of the 101st Airborne Division stayed on the move, but not at their customary pace. Walking single-file, I was instructed to stay at least 10 ft. (3 m) away from the man in front of me to minimize damage in case a bomb was tripped. We bypassed beaten trails of overgrown vineyards where hedges stood as high as 4 ft. (1.2 m). Dirt lanes and footbridges had to be cleared with plastic explosives before we could cross them. It was slow going, but the hard way was the only way. Says Sergeant First Class Justin Bosse, 35, a lean Texan who is a veteran of two Afghan tours: "Out here, the path of least resistance is usually the most dangerous one."

The scouts were initially dispatched to provide oversight for a clearing crew that ultimately had to be evacuated. Hours into a recent clearing operation, a member of Alpha Company had stepped on a crush box that took part of his leg; then, the next day, the 3rd Platoon was led into a trap. A local man responded to the Americans' request for a place to bed down for the night by taking them to an empty compound that was rigged with explosives. Although a bomb-sniffing dog and mine detector swept the place before platoon members entered, an IED placed by the doorway exploded near a group inside, gravely wounding one soldier. A second went off four minutes later, injuring another.

Because military rules dictate that any soldier within 160 ft. (50 m) of a blast must head back to base for evaluation, the entire platoon had to be removed from the battlefield, putting the clearing mission in jeopardy. The scouts were ordered to pick up where Alpha Company left off. Despite the threat of more bombs in the vicinity, they went to the same cluster of buildings to finish the search and to assess what had happened. Upon reaching the compound where the suspect had led the soldiers into harm's way, they encountered two elders who said they had just returned from Kandahar and knew nothing of the man in question. The U.S. officers were skeptical, but the elders insisted that the bomb-rigged building was in fact a former Taliban madrasah, or religious school, that had not been occupied for several months, though militants regularly pass through the area.

Despite U.S. firepower, the locals aren't about to shift alliances — or give any evidence of collaborating with foreigners. When the scout platoon's captain, Bill Faucher, asked a village resident if his men could stay in his compound for the night in exchange for money, the man adamantly refused. "We are scared," said Sardar Muhammad, 25. "If I let you stay here, the Taliban will come back and kill me." Similarly, when an elderly man approached a group of soldiers and was queried if he needed anything, he responded with dramatic effect: "No, I don't need anything and I don't want to talk to anybody!" Winning the trust of locals has always been one of the most difficult obstacles facing the U.S. in a region dominated by the specter of Taliban influence. On patrols, the only people soldiers typically interact with are children. Adults keep their distance.

Near the end of their operation, the scouts were dispatched to examine some compounds connected to a surge of IED activity on a stretch of road. As they approached the area late in the afternoon, a knot of well-built men in black turbans stood outside, motionless. A couple of them wore faint grins. Like everyone else in Zhari, they claimed to be farmers, but platoon officers suspected that, based on their mien and location, they were militants. Because the men were not carrying weapons, however, there was nothing to be done but walk away — in strict compliance with the U.S. military's rules of engagement. One soldier likened it to being "handcuffed."

"I just wish these bastards would come out and fight us. I'm sick of this," says Sergeant Bosse, as the scouts filed back to base. In five days outside the wire, they didn't fire a single shot.