4:09am

Sun July 29, 2012
Afghanistan

Disarming Afghan IEDs: Big Job, Too Few Trained

Originally published on Sun July 29, 2012 9:58 am

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remain one of the biggest killers in Afghanistan. As NATO forces prepare to withdraw from the country, Afghans are learning the special skills needed to find and disarm these deadly weapons.

The training area near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif is a large expanse of dirt and gravel, dotted with a few beat-up old taxis and scattered bunkers.

"The scenario has been set up where a car has been delivered to a target, an EOD team has been requested, the operator has set up a safe working area," explains Chris Snaith, a contractor and the chief instructor of the explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, training program here.

Students today are taking their final exams, and they're running through real-world exercises — with live weapons and live explosives. One student, wearing a protective suit that looks straight out of the film The Hurt Locker, is ready to disarm a bomb in the car. The assistant turns and yells, "Infajah! Infajah!" — Explosion! Explosion! A dull boom sounds.

"The explosion which you just heard is a controlled explosion, where he has found a target, and he is remotely dealing with the target," Snaith says. In other words, he used a small charge to blow the connection between the detonating device and the bomb.

So far, the students appear to be on their way to joining the ranks of soldiers and police certified in IED disposal. But the school can train only about 30 students at a time.

"We need to do more to fill those gaps [that] we have at the moment in our units," says Col. Ahmadullah, the commander of the school.

He says there are several levels of training. Basic explosive ordnance disposal courses run 12 weeks; about 800 soldiers and police have graduated since 2008.

The next level is improvised explosive device disposal, which lasts nine weeks. In that training, there are two roles, the level-one operator and level-two assistant. So far, about 180 people have graduated at each of those levels.

Ahmadullah says there is still a long way to go. He says Afghanistan needs 400 to 500 people trained for each of those levels, which he predicts will take three to four years.

About 70 percent of students pass the basic EOD training course, but only 40 to 50 percent pass the advanced training.

"What you have seen here is really high-quality training. We have certain standards that have to be reached," says Col. Ralf Broszinski, a German who acts as the NATO mentor for the school.

He says the pass rates are improving, but students still fail for breaking security protocols, like not grounding themselves before touching an electronic device.

"You can imagine if you are violating a security regulation when you are dealing with an IED, this is a good reason to get him failed," Broszinski says.

One student hoping to pass in a few more weeks is Hoshal, a member of the Afghan Border Police in Kandahar province. The 24-year-old says he was eager to learn the proper way to disarm explosive devices.

"When I was in Kandahar, I was doing these things, but I was not experienced, and now I know what I was doing was completely wrong," Hoshal says.

For now, the contracted instructors are helping set students like him straight. If all goes according to plan, Afghan instructors will take over next year, as the drawdown of NATO troops intensifies. But, like many aspects in this transition period, it's unclear if the Afghans will be ready.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

During 11 years of war in Afghanistan, we've become familiar with an ominous term, IED. It stands for Improvised Explosive Device. And as NATO forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, IEDs remain one of the biggest killers in the country. So, it's becoming increasingly important for Afghans to learn how to find and disarm these bombs. NPR's Sean Carberry tells us about his visit to an IED training school.

CHRIS SNAITH: Ladies and gents, we're going out onto the training area where you're going to be watching some IED training. Please be aware that there are live weapons and live explosives being used on that training area.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: That training area is a large expanse of dirt and gravel dotted with a few beat-up old taxis and scattered bunkers. Chris Snaith is a contractor and the chief instructor of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, training program near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. He explains that the students today are taking their final exams. They're running through real-world exercises.

SNAITH: OK, the scenario has been set up where a car has been delivered to a target, an EOD team has been requested, the operator has set up a safe working area.

CARBERRY: The student wearing a protective suit straight out of the film "The Hurt Locker" is ready to disarm a bomb in the car. The assistant turns and yells...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Explosion. Explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SNAITH: The explosion which you just heard was a controlled explosion, where he has found a target, and he is remotely dealing with the target.

CARBERRY: In other words, he used a small charge to blow the connection between the detonating device and the bomb. So far, these students appear to be on their way to joining the ranks of soldiers and police certified in IED disposal. But the school can only train about 30 students at a time.

COLONEL AHMADULLAH: We need to do more to fill those gaps what we have at the moment in our units.

CARBERRY: Colonel Ahmadullah is the commander of the school. He explains that there are several levels of training. Basic explosive ordnance disposal courses run 12 weeks and about 800 soldiers and police have graduated since 2008. The next level is improvised explosive device disposal, which lasts nine weeks. In that training, there are two roles, the level-one operator and level-two assistant. So far, they've graduated about 180 at each of those levels. Colonel Ahmadullah says there's still a long way to go.

AHMADULLAH: We need 400, 500 trained personnel as an operator number one.

CARBERRY: And the same at the number two level.

AHMADULLAH: It needs three, four years to have these numbers.

CARBERRY: About 70 percent of students pass the basic EOD training course, but only 40 to 50 percent pass the advanced training.

COLONEL RALF BROSZINSKI: What you have seen here is really high-quality training here. We have certain standards that have to be reached.

CARBERRY: Colonel Ralf Broszinski from Germany is the NATO mentor for the school. He says the pass rates are improving, but the students still fail for breaking security protocols, like not grounding themselves before touching an electronic device.

BROSZINSKI: You can imagine if you are violating a security regulation when you are dealing with an IED, this is a good reason to get him failed.

CARBERRY: One student hoping to pass in a few more weeks is Hoshal. He's a member of the Afghan Border Police in Kandahar province. The 24-year-old says he was eager to learn the proper way to disarm explosive devices.

HOSHAL: (Through Translator) When I was in Kandahar, I was doing these things, but I was not experienced, and now I know what I was doing was completely wrong.

CARBERRY: For now, RONCO instructors are helping set students like him straight. If all goes according to plan, Afghan instructors will take over next year, as the drawdown of NATO troops intensifies. But like many aspects in this transition period, it's unclear if the Afghans will be ready. Sean Carberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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