In a desolate field outside Kabul, an Afghan soldier hunches over a knee-high robot equipped with cameras, multidirectional pincers and tank-treads built for rough terrain. Carefully, he attaches four bottles of water and a tiny explosive charge to the robot. He uses a remote control to guide it 50 meters (yards) away to his target: a simulated backpack bomb.
"Explosion! Explosion! Explosion!" shouts the soldier, Naqibullah Qarizada, in a warning to others nearby. Then he remotely detonates the charge.
A small dust cloud kicks up. If all has gone well, the blast has pushed the water into the bomb with enough force to knock out its triggering mechanism. But to be safe, his partner, Hayatullah, climbs into a heavy protective suit before lumbering over to pluck out the blasting cap and seal it in a fortified box.
The two men are among hundreds of Afghan soldiers training to take over the dangerous fight against the war's biggest killers: the Taliban-planted bombs known as IEDs that kill and maim thousands of people each year on and around the country's roads and towns.
A few years ago, there were almost no Afghan bomb disposal experts. Now, there are 369 — but that's far from enough. The international coalition is rushing to train hundreds more before the exit of most coalition forces by the end of next year.
Each day on average, two to three roadside or buried bombs explode somewhere in Afghanistan, according to numbers compiled by the United Nations, which says that the explosives killed 868 civilians last year, 40 percent of the civilian deaths in insurgent attacks. Also, buried or roadside bombs accounted for 64 percent of the 3,300 international coalition troops killed or wounded last year, the NATO force says.
Known in military parlance as improvised explosives devices (IEDs), the bombs have long been a favorite Taliban weapon that can be remotely detonated by radio or mobile phone when a target passes or triggered by pressure, like a vehicle driving over it.
The U.S. military has over the years developed advanced detection and disposal techniques that manage to defuse about 40 to 50 IEDs each day, says Col. Ace Campbell, chief of the Counter-IED training unit. The coalition is working to transfer that knowledge to the Afghans who will be responsible once most foreign troops leave next year, and Campbell says Afghan teams are now finding and disposing about half of the bombs most days.
"Whenever I hear about an IED or I find one myself — maybe you will laugh, but I become very happy," says Hayatullah, 28, who has completed the highest level of training and like many Afghans uses just one name. "I am happy because it is my duty to defuse it, and I will save the lives of several people."
Hayatullah also has a personal reason for his chosen profession — his father was killed in a mine explosion. He was just 13 when unknown attackers planted two anti-personnel mines outside their home in Parwan province, and he says the memory fuels his desire to save others.
The country's main bomb disposal school is located at Camp Black Horse, set among a dust-swept field on Kabul's eastern outskirts, where a rusted-out Russian tank looms on a distant hill, a reminder of Afghanistan's long legacy of war dating back to the 1980s Soviet occupation.
Here, a team of about 160 instructors runs 19 different courses, ranging from a basic four-week awareness program for regular Afghan soldiers to the eight-month advanced "IED defeat" course that is a slightly shorter version of the U.S. Army's own counter-explosives training.
"We are giving them the best instruction that we have available, and they are picking it up," said U.S. Army Maj. Joel Smith, one of the training program's leaders. "Some are getting killed, some are dropping out, but their numbers are growing."
Still, it is a race against time to produce enough experts to fill the gap left by foreign troops' withdrawal. On Tuesday, NATO formally handed over full security responsibility to Afghanistan's fledgling 350,000-strong security forces, though many of the remaining foreign troops will stay until next year in a support and training role.
The goal is to have 318 full-fledged Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams, each with two or three Afghan experts, spread out around the country. But Afghan security forces now have less than 60 percent of the bomb specialists they need — hence the fever pitch of training.
"These guys are on a more accelerated program due to necessity," Smith said.
Equipping the Afghan teams is also a challenge. The coalition plans to distribute 12,000 metal detectors to regular police and army units, and each of the specialized disposal teams is slated to receive one of the high-tech robots that Qarizada and Hayatullah were working with. But Smith said each of the robots costs $17,000, and so far only about half of those needed are in the hands of Afghan teams. And that is not even taking into account who will maintain the sophisticated machines in a country where dust clogs nearly every machine and technical expertise is scarce.
Bomb disposal units gained widespread fame with the 2008 film "The Hurt Locker," but in real life the process — while still dangerous — is much slower and more methodical. The ultimate goal is to try not to approach a live bomb until it's been neutralized, which is the point of the exercise with the robot and the protective suit.
But with thousands of buried bombs and more being planted every day, it's impossible to have such sophisticated tools everywhere. That's why the program also trains regular Afghan army and police for four weeks in how to recognize signs of a smaller IED — freshly moved earth, or perhaps a conveniently placed culvert next to a bridge — and neutralize it in the crudest but simplest way: setting a smaller charge, moving far, far away and blowing it up in place.
Even such basic disposal takes weeks of training. Sitting attentively on rows of benches under a lean-to in the field, a group of Afghan soldiers listens to contractor James Webber, a former U.S. Air Force bomb disposal expert, as he explains how long to make a fuse so whoever sets it can then dash away for four minutes, or 240 seconds, to safety before the charge blows.
"So, 240 seconds divided by our burn rate - what do you get? Anyone got a calculator?" Webber asks.
The recruits nod, squint, calculate.