July 24, 2009 -- A split-second decision in Afghanistan could be the difference between life and death.
The rock a soldier steps on could be an improvised explosive device, or IED. The car that passes by could be driven by a suicide bomber with a trunkload of explosives.
So, before soldiers step outside the wire, the military ensures that they receive adequate training at Bagram Air Base to identify possible threats.
"We have horns, bells and whistles here. Make your mistakes here, not outside," Sgt. Blackmon told the soldiers during a Task Force Paladin training class.
Task Force Paladin is a program created by the U.S. military two years ago to combat the rising number of IED attacks. It provides training that can be summed up as a crash course on what to expect in Afghanistan.
"Rule of thumb -- don't drop. I lost my flashlight. I want to reach down and grab my flashlight," Blackmon said, picking up his flashlight and setting off an alarm. "I just blew myself up."
With the force in Afghanistan projected to more than double to 68,000 by year-end, and the number of IED attacks expected to increase by 25 to 30 percent this year, it is critical that soldiers have the training they need to protect themselves.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has very few paved roads, which makes it easy for insurgents to bury IEDS. Troops are trained to look for certain indicators that may alert them to possible IEDS.
"If you're walking up a path every day and a farmer's using that same pathway as his donkey and now he's not using that path anymore, you've got to get your interpreter down to talk to that guy,'" Blackmon told the soldiers as an example. "[Ask], 'Hey, why aren't you using this path anymore?' 'Well, the Taliban yesterday, they just buried anti-personnel mines up there.'"
Troops are given such scenarios to demonstrate the level of awareness and observation that they should maintain at all times.
IEDs Devastating Effects
The presence of IEDs in Afghanistan is a growing concern. Upon his arrival to Bagram Air Base, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff learned that 27 IEDs had been discovered by Task Force Paladin on the previous day.
The damage is felt by U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians alike. The impact of such attacks can be seen in military hospitals throughout Afghanistan that are quickly filling up.
"We are getting, on average, four to five bad cases per day," Dr. Marc Dauphin of the Canadian Armed Forces told ABC News.
Most of the victims are Afghan civilians. This year, Afghan civilians make up 60 to 80 percent of IED casualties in Afghanistan. In total, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured by IEDs this year.
Reducing the Danger
IEDs can be damaging even when they do not maim or kill. The bombs slow down military operations in Afghanistan by making roads too dangerous to deliver weapons and supplies.
To reduce the danger, military trainers teach troops to look for clues: fake rocks, bullet casings, car trunks weighed down by explosives and detonators hidden behind license plates.
Anything that appears to be out of place can be an indicator. Some .50 caliber shells on the ground can be an indicator because shells are worth money and most have been picked up by locals and taken to market to be bartered or sold.
Something as simple as money or a wallet could appear to be dropped but was actually planted.
"Very tempting," said Blackmon. "Be careful in this country. They are finding ways to blow us up." A car with tinted windows, a sagging trunk and new tires indicates there may be explosives in the trunk.
Additionally, the insurgents will place a victim-operated pressure plate on the front of the car.
"This is where the driver would hit a coalition vehicle and ignite the explosives in the back of the car," explained Lt. Jeremy Smith, an instructor with Task Force Paladin.
The device was developed once insurgents discovered the military technique of shooting the driver or tires to stop the vehicle.
"The reason they have that there is in case we do kill the driver, and we are successful, they can still use it. They'll ram you and still explode," said Blackmon.
Task Force Paladin Stays One Step Ahead
Insurgents have changed their techniques and tactics and resorted to suicide vehicle-borne IEDs. As a result, Task Force Paladin must stay one step ahead and teach soldiers how to identify the vehicles.
Additionally, Task Force Paladin has compiled a collection of every kind of bomb they have found to make troops aware of what they may be up against. Soldiers walk from one display board to the next and receive a tutorial on how each bomb operates -- from a list of the instruments used to make it to how the circuit is created.
Soldiers also must look out for the instruments that insurgents use to create bombs. It could be war remnants from the Soviet war. Many times it may be the soldiers' personal property.
Paper trash and calling cards must be cut up or burned to prevent insurgents from using the soldier's trash as paper conductors for bombs.
Soldiers also must collect anything insurgents can get a hand on, including ammunition cans and water jugs. Such items are brought back to be properly disposed of.
The task force also has beefed up its technology to detect IEDs. Robots are sent out to check for explosives buried in the ground or hidden in cars. Two camera lenses capture the findings and the surveillance is watched from nearby on a laptop.
Once an IED is found, it is equally important to disarm the device. The Tacbot, one of the military's primary robotic platforms, is a tool used so that bomb disposal technicians do not have to manually approach an IED before its safety is verified. Instead of sending a person to detonate the device, the Tacbot can be manipulated to work the same.
"The robots have taken quite a few for the team," said Army Pfc. Jamie Greene. "We definitely are more willing to give up a robot than a soldier."
Another advanced tool the military is using to combat IEDs are jamming devices, such as one developed by ITT that prevents cell phone-operated IEDs from exploding.
But all this technology is only as good as the young soldiers trained to use it.
"Compared to last year, the number of IEDs have gone up and so have the casualties," Col. Jeffrey Jarkowsky, commander of Task Force Paladin, told ABC News. "But just as the enemy has increased his intensity, we've also increased our intensity to defeat these devices."
With more than 25,000 troops trained so far this year, and nearly 3,200 IEDs discovered in Afghanistan, Task Force Paladin is determined to find the rest.