A student takes part in an exercise to disarm IEDs in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
A student takes part in an exercise to disarm IEDs in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Sean Carberry/NPR
Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remain one of the biggest killers in Afghanistan. As NATO forces prepare to withdraw from the country, Afghans are learning the special skills needed to find and disarm these deadly weapons.
The training area near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif is a large expanse of dirt and gravel, dotted with a few beat-up old taxis and scattered bunkers.
"The scenario has been set up where a car has been delivered to a target, an EOD team has been requested, the operator has set up a safe working area," explains Chris Snaith, a contractor and the chief instructor of the explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, training program here.
Students today are taking their final exams, and they're running through real-world exercises — with live weapons and live explosives. One student, wearing a protective suit that looks straight out of the film The Hurt Locker, is ready to disarm a bomb in the car. The assistant turns and yells, "Infajah! Infajah!" — Explosion! Explosion! A dull boom sounds.
"The explosion which you just heard is a controlled explosion, where he has found a target, and he is remotely dealing with the target," Snaith says. In other words, he used a small charge to blow the connection between the detonating device and the bomb.
So far, the students appear to be on their way to joining the ranks of soldiers and police certified in IED disposal. But the school can train only about 30 students at a time.
"We need to do more to fill those gaps [that] we have at the moment in our units," says Col. Ahmadullah, the commander of the school.
He says there are several levels of training. Basic explosive ordnance disposal courses run 12 weeks; about 800 soldiers and police have graduated since 2008.
The next level is improvised explosive device disposal, which lasts nine weeks. In that training, there are two roles, the level-one operator and level-two assistant. So far, about 180 people have graduated at each of those levels.
Ahmadullah says there is still a long way to go. He says Afghanistan needs 400 to 500 people trained for each of those levels, which he predicts will take three to four years.
About 70 percent of students pass the basic EOD training course, but only 40 to 50 percent pass the advanced training.
"What you have seen here is really high-quality training. We have certain standards that have to be reached," says Col. Ralf Broszinski, a German who acts as the NATO mentor for the school.
A student prepares an explosive charge to disarm a car bomb.
A student prepares an explosive charge to disarm a car bomb. Sean Carberry/NPR
He says the pass rates are improving, but students still fail for breaking security protocols, like not grounding themselves before touching an electronic device.
"You can imagine if you are violating a security regulation when you are dealing with an IED, this is a good reason to get him failed," Broszinski says.
One student hoping to pass in a few more weeks is Hoshal, a member of the Afghan Border Police in Kandahar province. The 24-year-old says he was eager to learn the proper way to disarm explosive devices.
"When I was in Kandahar, I was doing these things, but I was not experienced, and now I know what I was doing was completely wrong," Hoshal says.
For now, the contracted instructors are helping set students like him straight. If all goes according to plan, Afghan instructors will take over next year, as the drawdown of NATO troops intensifies. But, like many aspects in this transition period, it's unclear if the Afghans will be ready.