STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines and their Afghan counterparts are tightening their grip on the crumbling Taliban stronghold of Marjah. Each day, troops uncover weapons caches left behind by Taliban fighters.

INSKEEP: One major threat to troops and local civilians remains, the homemade bombs known as IEDs - improvised explosive devices. Hundreds of them were planted across the 70 square miles of the Marjah district in the months leading up to the offensive. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently spent time in Marjah with India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine which spent most of its waking hours dealing with IEDs.

(Soundbite of explosions)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The Marines detonate 400 pounds in IEDs they uncover on the bridge into northwestern Marjah. The so-called daisy chain of bombs could've killed and maimed a lot troops if they'd driven across them. but in this controlled explosion the only casualties are a dozen doors on abandoned stores that are blown off their hinges.

Captain Bill Hefty commands India Company, which discovered the bombs and captured the militant holding a detonator.

Captain BILL HEFTY (India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines): I wasn't shocked there were IEDs, but I was a little shocked they were completely set up for us to come north to south, straight up the middle. I thought they would have thought I was a little smarter than that.

NELSON: Outsmarting the Taliban in hopes of avoiding the deadly bombs is a full-time job for Hefty and his team. So is the hunt to find all of the IEDs in areas where the Marines and Afghan soldiers are forced to tread, says First Lieutenant Justin Gray, who is 27 and from Atlanta.

1st Lieutenant JUSTIN GRAY (India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines): We can see the guys that are shooting at us, but we can't see the stuff in the ground. You know, we have dogs and we have metal detectors, both great assets. But sometimes it's just luck, you know. But yeah, the IEDs are definitely the greater threat. It's harder to counter those than it is to counter small-arms fire.

NELSON: In the first three days of the offensive, Gray's men uncovered nearly 20 IEDs in a tiny village they captured from the Taliban. But there were a few they missed.

1st Lt. GRAY: Unidentified Man: Hey, listen up everybody has got to push back that way.

NELSON: One Marine warns the other to get back. An explosives team just found two IEDs right outside the gas station in which they'd spent the night.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Gunnery Sergeant E.J. Pate from Mullins, South Carolina helps blow up the IEDs.

Gunnery Sergeant E.J. PATE (India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines): They're probably going to find quite a few more in this area.

NELSON: And what is this exactly? Like how many pounds is this?

Gunnery Sgt. PATE: I'd say about 60 pounds. It's probably an ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder mixture, which is what they've been using so far. And it provides a blasting cap of some sort. And a pressure plate with a power source.

NELSON: Later that morning, Staff Sergeant David Southerland of Carbondale, Illinois takes another group of explosives experts and combat engineers to clear a road between India and Kilo Company so they can start moving troops and supplies.

Do you worry when you do this?

Staff Sergeant DAVID SOUTHERLAND (India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines): There is always some bit of worry, ma'am, but I feel that we are trained well enough to prepare for it, so - it is what it is. We're here to save lives and help people out.

NELSON: Southerland and two other explosives experts slowly wave hand-held metal detectors over the dirt road and across nooks and crannies in nearby mud walls.

(Soundbite of metal detector)

When they get a solid reading, the combat engineers with them spring into action. They use their knives to dig into the dirt in search of a pressure plate or wire. Sometimes, they gently kick at a suspected spot with their boots. Most of the time, the digging and kicking reveal it's a false alarm.

(Soundbite of metal detector)

Juice containers, bullet casings even single servings of instant coffee in aluminum wrappers set off the detectors. But the good news, Southerland says, is their thorough search means they can clear this patch of road. He decides to spot-check an area nearby that was briefly swept by another patrol.

Staff Sgt. SOUTHERLAND: I'm just going to double check it, because people have missed them in the past. Not good.

NELSON: It turns out to be the right call. Southerland has found an IED. To get rid of it he blows it up.

(Soundbite of explosion)

NELSON: The staff sergeant says what tipped him off to the IED were two larger stones he spotted nearby, one on top of the other. The stones were a warning from the Taliban to local Marjah residents not to tread there.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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