When an IED explodes: The shocking pictures of what really happens when the Taliban attacks

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

Rarely has the casual brutality of the Taliban’s favourite weapon been so vividly illustrated as in these remarkable pictures. Taken by an ex-SAS officer turned photographer, they will reshape your perception of true courage

DATELINE: FIREBASE TAMBA, HELMAND PROVINCE, APRIL 7 2011

Flying low and coming in fast, a huge CH47 'Casevac' Chinook helicopter appears from the south
A huge CH47 'Casevac' Chinook helicopter appears from the south; its rotor beat a heart-warming sound. We know there is a field surgical team on board, ready to work life-saving magic on our wounded
It is a windless, overcast morning as we leave Firebase Tamba. Our 25-man patrol force, comprising a squad of United Arab Emirates (UAE) Special Forces, a dozen Afghan commandos (ANA) and U.S. Special Forces (the elite Green Berets) is scheduled to conduct a ‘hearts and minds’ visit to the villages that sprawl along our segment of the Helmand Valley.
It is almost impossible to get an embed with Special Forces. I am tolerated only because, having served in the SAS for nine years, I can be expected to hold my own if things ‘go south’ outside the wire. The temperature is comfortably warm and our progress north is observed by villagers either too old or too young to be out labouring in the fields.
Our force moves with practised ease. The Green Berets have done a good job instructing and mentoring these Afghan commandos. There is a ripple of banter along the ranks as one of the Green Berets, who has a habit of re-naming the Afghans, calls out: ‘Justin! Yes you… Justin Bieber. Keep in formation!’
The ANA commandos stand out from the local Pashtun. Recruited from other provinces, they have paler complexions and a different bone structure. Their presence is a reminder to the peasant farmers here that there might be unfinished business when the coalition finally departs.
The Emirati troops are no more popular than the native Afghan troops, yet just 20km away is a UAE firebase with a clinic, a radio station and a telecommunications mast. These men come from a nation which is seen as a force for stability in the Arab world.
On a patrol a week earlier, I observed the Emiratis unsheathe possibly the most effective weapon I have seen in nine years of observing the war in Afghanistan: a modest invitation by the senior officer to village elders to join them at midday prayer.
Whenever we pause a crowd gathers. The presence of Muslim troops provokes curiosity among the Afghans, who are willing to shake hands with these men from ‘Arabstan’. The Emiratis hand out Korans as well as notebooks, pens and chocolate. This is a potent force at work – one the Taliban dare not challenge and one the coalition cannot wield.
At midday, the American captain decides three hours is long enough for the patrol, so we swing our formation south. Our firebase is within sight, a little more than 500m away.
One burly Green Beret throws his head back and yells: ‘And so ends… the most boring…’ he pauses to inflate his lungs then barks, ‘******* patrol…’ – another lungful – ‘in the history of Afghanistan.’
There are smiles all around. But his words must have carried further than he imagined, for a moment later, a whiplash cracking overhead tells us we are in contact with the enemy...

1. CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY - 14:30 -

Justin Bieber's Afghan namesake is returning fire with a long burst from his machine gun. A Green Beret yells at him to save ammo and advance into enemy fire
Justin Bieber's Afghan namesake is returning fire with a long burst from his machine gun. A Green Beret yells at him to save ammo and advance into enemy fire
The volley of Taliban bullets cracking past sends every man scurrying for whatever cover the bare ground can offer. We are down before the echo of high-velocity rounds and swear words die in the air. Justin Bieber’s Afghan namesake is returning fire with a long burst from his machine gun. A Green Beret yells at him to save ammo and advance into enemy fire. My body armour and helmet no longer feel uncomfortable. In an extended line and at a crouched scurry, we retrace our way to a vantage point on high ground. I take cover by a wrecked British Viking troop carrier and we pause before moving north again. We have halved the distance to our opponents who, if they are still there, can only be 200 or 300 metres away.

2. TELL-TALE SIGNS OF DANGER - 15:15 -

The shots came from the north-west and the U.S. 'K9' tracker-dog team is on the scent of two men
The shots came from the north-west and the U.S. 'K9' tracker-dog team is on the scent of two men. Confident the situation is under control, I join a group of soldiers relaxing along the earth bank protecting the canal
Radios crackle with American voices discussing options. The shots came from the north-west and the U.S. ‘K9’ tracker-dog team is on the scent of two men. We consolidate at a narrow bridge across a deep irrigation channel flanked by high earth banks, a natural choke point for foot and vehicle traffic and also for an IED. I spot scraps of burned yellow plastic, tell-tale residue from an earlier IED blast, and the dog becomes excited, indicating a spot where the earth looks freshly disturbed. The flanking pursuit group has detained two suspects; we are ordered to wait. ‘The EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) guys are on task,’ the captain says. ‘They’ll get to us next.’ Confident the situation is under control, I join a group of soldiers relaxing along the earth bank protecting the canal.

3. AN IED EXPLODES... - 15:38 -

Screams of pain start instantly as the cloud of soil and dust subsides to reveal three prostrate figures. I recognise the black hair of an Afghan commando as he lies in a fresh IED crater
Screams of pain start instantly as the cloud of soil and dust subsides to reveal three prostrate figures. I recognise the black hair of an Afghan commando as he lies in a fresh IED crater
An ear-splitting crack stuns me and I whirl round to see a geyser of earth erupting from where I’d been sitting moments before. Screams of pain start instantly as the cloud of soil and dust subsides to reveal three prostrate figures. I recognise the black hair of an Afghan commando as he lies in a fresh IED crater. The U.S. captain is swearing loudly, lying on the bank, clutching his right hand and covered in dirt. Another American is lying yards from me. Both are groaning but their curses are almost heartening, whereas the wounded Afghan is silent. He is face down but conscious and struggling to raise himself on his elbows. As I drop my camera and run to drag him clear of the crater I see he no longer has legs.

4. ... QUICKLY FOLLOWED BY A SECOND - 15:53 -

The American captain materialises from the settling cloud, covered in earth, dust and grit, lying at the foot of the earth bank. He has taken the full blast against his back but his body armour has saved him
The American captain materialises from the settling cloud, covered in earth, dust and grit, lying at the foot of the earth bank. He has taken the full blast against his back but his body armour has saved him
The Green Beret medic has just begun working on the casualty when there’s a second blast so close it rocks me with a concussive punch. Another brown cloud kicks up and we all seem suspended, breathless in a second of dazed silence. A renewed stream of ripe profanity and indignation tells me that, unbelievably, the American captain is still with us. He materialises from the settling cloud, covered in earth, dust and grit, lying at the foot of the earth bank. He has taken the full blast against his back but his body armour has saved him. He drops his trousers and underpants; his skin is flayed from backside to ankle. The medic and the badly wounded Afghan have also been caught in a storm of gravel. It seems they were the intended target of the second blast. Take out a medic and you take out a whole patrol. He knows it and, deafened by the blast and peppered with gravel, waves away a colleague in case there is more punishment to follow.

5. THE MEDIC WORKS FRANTICALLY - 16:03 -

The medic is yelling, maybe because he is almost deaf, maybe because adrenaline is surging but mainly because he needs to believe. 'Hang in there, buddy,' he urges his Afghan colleague. 'You're gonna make it!'
The medic is yelling, maybe because he is almost deaf, maybe because adrenaline is surging but mainly because he needs to believe. 'Hang in there, buddy,' he urges his Afghan colleague. 'You're gonna make it!'
The American Green Beret medic cannot cope alone and is now calling for help with the wounded Afghan. He tosses me a tourniquet and points to the man’s shattered legs. The feet and lower legs have gone. The bone has been skinned clean, showing ivory and pink. I get the tourniquet on over the left thighbone and I pull it to the man’s groin to get purchase against whole flesh. The medic is yelling, maybe because he is almost deaf, maybe because adrenaline is surging but mainly because he needs to believe. ‘Hang in there, buddy,’ he urges his Afghan colleague. ‘You’re gonna make it!’ Within minutes he has worked magic. The bleeding has been stopped, and painkillers flood the man’s system. His shattered thighs are swathed in clean, white bandages that cover and protect the pulped limbs. The Afghan was planning to get married on his next leave.

6. INJURED, THE CAPTAIN REMAINS CALM AND IN CONTROL

- 16:10 -

The young Green Beret captain (left) has been caught in two blasts, is lacerated and bleeding. Jeroo the interpreter (right), untreated from the first blast and caught in the second, is sobbing
The young Green Beret captain (left) has been caught in two blasts, is lacerated and bleeding. Jeroo the interpreter (right), untreated from the first blast and caught in the second, is sobbing

The young Green Beret captain (left) has been caught in two blasts, is lacerated and bleeding. Jeroo the interpreter (right), untreated from the first blast and caught in the second, is sobbing
The young Green Beret captain, a man I’d nicknamed the Quiet American, gives a lesson in leadership – even for an SAS veteran like me. He has been caught in two blasts, is lacerated and bleeding, has a serious injury to his right hand, is in shock, and perhaps permanently deafened. Being closest, I unzip his medical pouch, rip open the field dressing and work it around his bloodied hand. His face is a mask of pain and dust but he is amazingly rational, calling in instructions on the radio and issuing orders to his men.
As I tie off the captain’s dressing, Jeroo the interpreter, untreated from the first blast and caught in the second, is sobbing. His left arm hangs limp and bloodied from his ripped uniform. I get to him with a spare dressing, wrap it round his arm and tie it off to his right shoulder strap.
I tell Jeroo he should send his shattered watch back to the manufacturer claiming it is not shockproof in spite of the guarantee. He is too exhausted for humour. His eyes barely register. The huge medic, shaking gravel from his hair, is still working on the Afghan.
The captain remains composed, leading the rescue operation and commanding his men. He seems to have been constantly calculating the odds against us – knowing that to back off would have meant losing face with the Afghan community he was trying so hard to influence. He is clearly a soldier who understands the bigger picture.

7. HELP ARRIVES AND THE INJURED 7 ARE FERRIED TO THE HELICOPTER - 16.25 -

Minutes later, the CH47 'Casevac' Chinook will be loaded and its twin turbines will howl into lift-off. It will surge forward, dip its nose to gather speed and streak for Camp Bastion and the field hospital
Minutes later, the CH47 'Casevac' Chinook will be loaded and its twin turbines will howl into lift-off. It will surge forward, dip its nose to gather speed and streak for Camp Bastion and the field hospital
Mine roller vehicles from our base have blazed a mine-free route to us and are standing by, gun crews offering us all-round protection. Flying low and coming in fast, a huge CH47 ‘Casevac’ Chinook helicopter appears from the south; its rotor beat a heart-warming sound. We know there is a field surgical team on board, ready to work life-saving magic on our wounded. Above too, silhouetted against the sky, attack helicopters orbit, like angry hornets. Minutes later, the Chinook will be loaded and its twin turbines will howl into lift-off. It will surge forward, dip its nose to gather speed and streak for Camp Bastion and the field hospital. It has reached us in just 30 minutes, halfway through the so-called ‘golden hour’, the 60-minute target medics set themselves to collect their casualties and stabilise them.

8. TEMPERS BOIL OVER AS EVIDENCE IS UNCOVERED - 16:30-

Having watched their comrade lose his legs, the Afghans' simmering fury boils over and two more suspects are ejected from a nearby house (one is pictured with the evidence)
Having watched their comrade lose his legs, the Afghans' simmering fury boils over and two more suspects are ejected from a nearby house (one is pictured with the evidence)
The rest of us prepare for the walk back down the mine-free route. The Afghan commandos have searched houses and come up with the incriminating paraphernalia of IED triggers – batteries, mobile phone parts and circuit boards – as well as drugs. Our minds flash back to the choke point where we spotted the debris of an IED and where, as we now know to our cost, others were buried. Having watched their comrade lose his legs, the Afghans’ simmering fury boils over and two more suspects are ejected from a nearby house (one is pictured with the evidence, above). Women shriek in terror as they watch a son or a brother stagger and fall under a hail of blows and kicks as he is dragged into our column. I watch dispassionately. The evidence is bagged and will be handed to Afghan police.

9. ANOTHER REMINDER OF THE BRUTAL SIMPLICITY OF IEDS

- 16:33 -

A powerful man, maybe even two, could never match an M4 carbine, making them the perfect weapon in an insurgency such as the one in Helmand
A powerful man, maybe even two, could never match an M4 carbine, making them the perfect weapon in an insurgency such as the one in Helmand
The injured Afghan commando’s weapon, an M4 carbine, which has been smashed, twisted and bent in a split second by the gases that tore off his legs, illustrates the power of even a small IED, one which weighs no more than a few pounds. A powerful man, maybe even two, could never match such explosive force, making them the perfect weapon in an insurgency such as the one in Helmand. They remain the Coalition’s deadliest threat – although I am grateful to say everyone caught in this contact survived.
On the long walk back to the firebase I come to realise we’d been watched all the way and that the Taliban had judged their moment with military precision. The gauntlet, thrown down by that first burst of AK-47 fire over our heads, was the baited challenge. In accepting, we had been lured to a choke point and onto a killing ground.
The hidden Taleb who detonated the devices, probably with fingers skipping over a mobile phone, would have had a marker, a tree or perhaps a feature on the skyline, as accurate as any cross-hairs on a scope. He had guaranteed a casualty with his first IED, using his victim as a magnet to draw in a medic and maybe a commander – two key players in any small unit – for his second bomb. He succeeded on both counts.
The IED is perhaps the most formidable weapon in any terrorist arsenal: low-cost, low-maintenance, constructed by willing or intimidated proxies. When armed and well sited it is a weapon that never sleeps. IEDs positioned individually or in multiples can either warn off or draw into a spectacular web. They wreak havoc with lives, morale and matériel, civilian as well as military. That night, sleep is difficult and I wander up to the roof of our tiny firebase, to smoke and enjoy the cool and a night sky bright with countless stars. To the east an electrical storm is in full swing. To the west another kind of storm rages.
The Helmand Valley, a trophy U.S. irrigation project in the Sixties, is now the scene of a more deadly American effort. My mind churns through the day’s images – the Afghan peasants, their children, desperate for books and a chance in life, the seeming hopelessness of an existence torn between their Taliban tormentors and the American-led effort to bring enlightenment and a future.
The Afghan commandos, with few if any Pashtun in their ranks, are strangers in their own land and are as unwelcome in Helmand as the rest of the Coalition. Yet from somewhere they summon the courage to try.
The Americans, in spite of their heroism, commitment and bravery, are surely much misunderstood. I recall the giant Green Beret medic, working like a mad angel and in pain himself, screaming: ‘Hang on, buddy, you’re going to be fine, just fine,’ as he strove to keep life flickering in someone he hardly knew nor would likely see again. Both he and the captain, caught in the eye of the storm, had the wellspring of their courage tapped deeply on this day. All of the Green Berets would, if needed, have gone straight back out on patrol to set the example to their Afghan compatriots.
And soon they will be beyond the wire again, repeating the ‘spiel’, whether they believe it or not, and ‘walking the walk’, as the odds against their survival narrow daily.
 
 
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