WASHINGTON – The death of a U.S. 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 said.
The death of Specialist James A. Slape casts an unwelcome spotlight on the United States’ prolonged presence in Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s claims that U.S. 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 Slape, Taliban militants recovered part of his left leg and paraded it through a bazaar, the officials said. It was a grim reminder that, even as the United States courts peace talks with the group, the Taliban continues to wage a brutal war, and to use the projection of violence as a demonstration of its influence and endurance.
Slape, 23, of Morehead City, N.C., was the eighth American to die in Afghanistan in 2018. Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, declined to comment, saying that the attack was still under investigation.
On Oct. 4, a platoon from Alpha Co., 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry drove roughly 7 miles southeast of Camp Dwyer, a U.S. forward operating base built in 2007 by the British military. The patrol was stopped when one of its armored vehicles struck a roadside bomb. 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 apparently were watching back, as units from the battalion carved tire tracks in the soil. With the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in its 18th year, larger installations like Camp Dwyer are known landmarks and the surrounding terrain is well trafficked by U.S. troops — a fact well understood by the militants.
U.S. ground units are typically trained to vary their patrol routes. Why this unit returned to the same observation point multiple times is not clear.
After other U.S. patrols there, the Taliban dotted the ridge with possible anti-personnel mines and roadside bombs. The trap appeared to have been recently laid; in late September, another unit found no buried explosives there.
Later that Oct. 4 morning, Slape, along with a quick-reaction force, left Camp Dwyer and headed to the damaged MaxxPro. The bomb disposal technician had just finished checking around the rear of the MaxxPro, allowing the soldiers inside to get out. Shortly before 1:30 p.m., he stepped on the bomb that would kill him.