WASHINGTON — The death of an Army soldier after a blast in southern Afghanistan this month was the result of a series of oversights by a military unit that frequently used a small strip of desert as a patrol route and observation post, prompting Taliban militants to bury explosives nearby, military officials familiar with the matter said.
The death of the soldier, Specialist James A. Slape, casts an unwelcome spotlight on the United States’ prolonged presence in Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s claims that American troops are mostly relegated to advising and assisting their Afghan counterparts, they still undertake some of the same types of missions common at the height of the conflict, when more than 100,000 Western troops were deployed there.
After the explosion that killed Specialist Slape, Taliban militants recovered part of his left leg and paraded it through a bazaar in the Garmsir District, according to the officials. It was a grim reminder that, even as the United States courts peace talks with the group, the Taliban continues to wage a brutal, unsparing war, and to use the projection of violence as a demonstration of its influence and endurance.
Specialist Slape, 23, of Morehead City, N.C., was the eighth American to die in Afghanistan in 2018. Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the American-led mission in Afghanistan, declined to comment, saying that the attack was still under investigation.
On Oct. 4, a platoon from Alpha Company, First Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment drove roughly seven miles southeast of Camp Dwyer, an American forward operating base built in 2007 by the British military during its own frustrating campaign in Helmand Province. The patrol was stopped when one of its armored vehicles struck a roadside bomb. The explosion, just before 10 a.m., destroyed the truck’s tires and an axle, immobilizing it. No one was injured in that attack, military officials said.
The vehicle, known as a MaxxPro and weighing about 20 tons, came to rest on a seemingly innocuous desert ridge.
But the ridge had become an important location for the Americans: With a prominent view of the river valley below, it was a place where soldiers had previously stopped to intercept Taliban radio and cellphone traffic from nearby villages.
Taliban fighters, for their part, apparently were watching back, as units from the battalion carved easily discernible tire tracks in the soil. American patrols often also bisected the ridge before returning to Camp Dwyer.
With the American presence in Afghanistan in its 18th year, larger installations in the country, like Camp Dwyer, are well-known landmarks and the surrounding terrain is well trafficked by American troops — a fact well understood by the militants.
American ground units are typically trained to vary their patrol routes and to not repeatedly stop at or use the same places. Why this unit returned to the same observation point multiple times is not clear.
After other American patrols there, the Taliban dotted the ridge with possible antipersonnel mines and improvised explosive devices. The trap appeared to have been recently laid; in late September, another unit from the battalion stopped there and found no buried explosives, though the soldiers reported that they were being watched.
Later that Oct. 4 morning, Specialist Slape, along with a quick-reaction force, left Camp Dwyer and headed to the damaged MaxxPro. As a bomb disposal technician, he was responsible for finding explosives and clearing a path to the damaged truck so that a recovery vehicle could tow it away and those inside could exit.
Specialist Slape, a National Guard soldier, was assigned to the 430th Ordnance Company in Washington, N.C., an explosive ordnance disposal unit that had been in Afghanistan since April. The 430th had repeatedly requested better equipment and predeployment training but was denied both because of a lack of funding, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
Some of the equipment included tools often used when clearing buried land mines and improvised bombs.
According to two officials familiar with the unit’s deployment, the 430th borrowed some equipment like telescopic rifle sights and radios from other National Guard units before leaving the United States and received more items upon its arrival in Afghanistan, but still lacked the most advanced mine detectors that could locate bomb components that the Taliban use. That detector has been issued by many active-duty bomb disposal units, including some not deployed to conflict zones.
Bomb technicians said that much of the equipment and training the 430th had sought were standard for active-duty counterparts, especially those in an area like southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold. The decision by the National Guard to deny its soldiers an equivalent level of support was of concern, the officials said. Even so, it is unclear whether this discrepancy contributed to Specialist Slape’s death.
Lt. Col. Matthew R. DeVivo, a spokesman for the North Carolina National Guard, said that Specialist Slape’s unit had received all required training and equipment before deploying. He said he was unaware of any requests for more advanced equipment or better training.
Specialist Slape had just finished checking around the rear of the MaxxPro, allowing the soldiers inside to get out, before starting to sweep around the front. Shortly before 1:30 p.m., he stepped on the bomb that would kill him. He was medically evacuated to the base hospital at Camp Dwyer, where he was pronounced dead.
It is unclear what type of device killed Specialist Slape. A military report points to the presence of improvised explosive devices in Garmsir that consist of 20-gallon plastic drums filled with explosives made from fertilizer and connected to motorcycle batteries, and that can be remotely detonated. Variations of these types of bombs have maimed and killed Americans patrolling there for more than a decade.
In the ensuing hours, a second response force arrived at the scene. The unit, a route clearance platoon, used a specially equipped vehicle that could scan the ground for roadside bombs and mines. At 5 p.m., it began a slow sweep toward the still-disabled MaxxPro and the crater left by the bomb that killed the specialist.
The Americans triggered two more explosions as they moved to clear the surrounding area, and soldiers found at least two other explosives that did not go off.
Specialist Slape’s equipment was scattered across the ridge, and it would take until the next morning to pick up pieces of his uniform, rifle, mine detector, wallet and cellphone. Sometime after the Americans had left, the Taliban had recovered part of his leg, posting a picture of it and one his boots on social media.