3 Injured in Roadside Bomb Attack Outside Bagram, Afghanistan

Securing Afghanistan's busiest airfield puts expeditionary airmen in harm's way.

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BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Two targeted roadside bomb explosions left three Air Force troopers wounded this weekend, marking the first successful insurgent attack here in two months.

The first roadside explosion took place just south of this airfield -- the busiest and one of the biggest in Afghanistan -- on Saturday and accounted for all three injuries. It crippled the heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicle these troops use, which are designed to shelter squads from the roadside explosions that have defined the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second attack, also on an MRAP, occurred later Saturday evening and did not cause any casualties.

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The injured airmen belong to the 755th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, also known as "The Reapers." One suffered from injuries to his vertebrae and had to be evacuated out of Afghanistan. The other two were treated for minor injuries here.

This squadron is part of a joint task force designed to secure this airfield and the roughly 35,000 people stationed here. In the last year, the Reapers have extended their reach far outside the wire to interact directly with the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who live in hamlets and towns within an 8-mile radius, and the Taliban fighters hiding there.

"[The first] was one of the most focused and dedicated attacks here we've seen ever," says Air Force Col. Glen Christensen, commander of the Reaper squadron, of this past year. He added that the damaged MRAP will be repaired and back on missions within a week.

"Saturday night's attack was a complete and total failure," he added. That patrol insisted on completing its mission.

His unit, working with local Afghans, has found and neutralized roughly half a dozen roadside bombs since the last attack, which occurred roughly two months ago.

The Reapers and their new counterinsurgency mission have reduced the number of attacks on base 47 percent, says Air Force Lt. Col. Chris DeGuelle, the squadron's deputy commander. But it's been an uphill fight.

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Widespread illiteracy combined with distrust of the national government and security forces created a hostile environment around Bagram. Nearby towns such as Qal'Eh-Ye Nasro had been particular hotbeds of Taliban activity.

The 8-mile area around Bagram contains locals who claim loyalty to one of many separate ethnic tribes, such as Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks. This requires the Reapers to make contact with regional leaders in an attempt to overcome some of the sources of the violence.

"The biggest thing is it's just poor," DeGuelle says. Finishing the sixth grade is a point of pride among many of the locals he and his airmen encounter.

The Reapers have employed a multi-pronged approach to combating the local violence.

Attacks from indiscriminate fire, or IDF, hit Bagram about once or twice every two weeks, forcing all personnel on base to don armor in response to specific sirens and head to bunkers. Reapers conduct nighttime patrols outside of their MRAPs to try to find the fighters setting up these makeshift rockets, usually located near civilian houses to make it more difficult for coalition forces to return fire.

The Reapers, working with Afghan units, will also set up a stranglehold on known Taliban hotspots, creating checkpoints for every person coming and going from town. They will follow this with meetings with the local maliks, or tribal leaders, to explain their actions and encourage the local forces to cooperate. This is how the airmen were able to quell the violence in Qal'Eh-Ye Nasro.

Reapers, such as airmen 1st class Stephen Zimmerman and Wesley Scott pictured here, spend much of their time outside of their heavily armed MRAPs interacting with local Afghans. (Paul D. Shinkman/USN&WR)

They also conduct counter-IED missions, sweeping local roads and creating traffic control points to monitor the cars traveling along local routes. They set up traps at areas of known IED activity to try to find someone planting one of the deadly bombs.

Both positive and negative campaigns have also helped the Reapers establish themselves in local communities. Squads will find people of influence in each town and conduct sit-down meetings to get to know one another personally. One local colonel in the northern area has even accompanied the Reapers on patrols.