We walked in a single file. Not because it was tactically sound. It wasn’t—at least according to standard infantry doctrine. Patrolling southern Afghanistan in column formation limited maneuverability, made it difficult to mass fire, and exposed us to enfilading machine-gun bursts. Still, in 2011, in the Pashmul District of Kandahar Province, single file was our best bet.
The reason was simple enough: improvised bombs not just along roads but seemingly everywhere. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Who knew?
That’s right, the local “Taliban”—a term so nebulous it’s basically lost all meaning—had managed to drastically alter US Army tactics with crude, homemade explosives stored in plastic jugs. And believe me, this was a huge problem. Cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to bury, those anti-personnel Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, soon littered the “roads,” footpaths, and farmland surrounding our isolated outpost. To a greater extent than a number of commanders willingly admitted, the enemy had managed to nullify our many technological advantages for a few pennies on the dollar (or maybe, since we’re talking about the Pentagon, it was pennies on the millions of dollars).
Truth be told, it was never really about our high-tech gear. Instead, American units came to rely on superior training and discipline, as well as initiative and maneuverability, to best their opponents. And yet those deadly IEDs often seemed to even the score, being both difficult to detect and brutally effective. So there we were, after too many bloody lessons, meandering along in carnival-like, Pied Piper-style columns. Bomb-sniffing dogs often led the way, followed by a couple of soldiers carrying mine detectors, followed by a few explosives experts. Only then came the first foot soldiers, rifles at the ready. Anything else was, if not suicide, then at least grotesquely ill-advised.
And mind you, our improvised approach didn’t always work either. To those of us out there, each patrol felt like another round of Russian roulette. In that way, those IEDs completely changed how we operated, slowing movement, discouraging extra patrols, and distancing us from what was then considered the ultimate “prize”: the local villagers, or what was left of them anyway. In a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, which is what the US military was running in Afghanistan in those years, that was the definition of defeat.