For the route clearance team of US Marines, another tense night crammed inside their armored vehicles was proof that winning control of Afghanistan’s roads would not be easy.
The 1st Combat Engineer Battalion’s 10-vehicle convoy was trying to open up an important road into the south of Helmand Province when a series of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left them stranded for days.
With the route blocked — and more IEDs apparently being laid every night — badly needed supplies could not get through to infantry troops who had been air-lifted deep into Taliban-held territory more than a week earlier.
The journey from Camp Delhi in Garmsir district to the infantry’s position at Mian Poshteh was just 30km, but the route clearance convoy was still far from its destination after 72 tough hours on the road.
At noon on Wednesday, the first IED destroyed an anti-mine roller being pushed by the convoy’s lead vehicle, a reporter traveling with the Marines witnessed.
It was the start of a series of bomb blasts and logistical setbacks that highlighted the US military’s vulnerability to guerrilla tactics being deployed by Taliban insurgents in the difficult terrain of the Helmand River valley.
The explosion sent the roller’s pieces flying into the air and flipped the 17,000kg mine-resistant, ambush-protected truck onto its side, nearly toppling it into a canal that ran beside the dirt road.
“Suddenly everything went black and we were falling towards the canal,” the truck’s driver, Private Donnie Hamiliton, said. “I escaped through the gun turret.”
The massively reinforced vehicle, a new addition to the US fleet, has been lauded for saving troops’ lives but is so heavy that special lifting equipment is needed to put it upright again.
At 4am the next day, the rescue team finally arrived along the same route — only to hit an IED that was apparently planted overnight to strike them.
The explosion wrecked another mine-resistant truck and caused hours more delays as Marines used hand-held mine-sweepers to check the road between the two blasts and burned damaged equipment to stop it falling into Taliban hands.
The convoy finally got back on the road on Thursday evening, but within an hour was hit by a third IED that destroyed a “Husky” mine-detector vehicle.
It meant another long, hot night inside the convoy’s remaining vehicles with gunners on constant alert for a likely ambush.
Since the first blast, just a couple of kilometers of road had been covered and seven further IEDs had been discovered and dismantled.
“We have got to go down this road, and there’s a lot of problem solving involved,” Lieutenant Dan Jernigan said.
“Right now, because we have such a focused effort [into south Helmand], it is easy for them to predict where we need to go,” he said. “Vehicles are being blown apart but the Marines inside are being kept safe. Not to sound cavalier, but it is better we take the blast than Humvees or someone else such as villagers.”
The US’ efforts to stabilize the Afghan government and defeat the Taliban rely on controlling Helmand, where much of the opium that funds the insurgency is grown and through which Taliban fighters travel to safe havens in Pakistan.
But mines set by the Taliban — and detonated either by a trigger man with a command wire or by pressure plate — threaten the US’ plan to provide security for the region.