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The Road Watchers

SHARANA, Afghanistan - Teams of Afghans are saving countless lives, after one man from San Diego, Calif., noticed their potential and trained them on how to spot and report a deadly threat.

The Afghans are saving lives by finding improvised explosive devices on the roadways and reporting the locations, so international forces can disarm them and the Afghan national security forces can collect evidence to find those responsible.

Mike Bowles, a law enforcement professional for Military Professional Resources International, coordinates a project called Road Watch.

"On roads that Road Watch monitors, there hasn't been an IED strike on international forces since January 2009," said Bowles about the success of Afghans when they are on the job.

The 25-year veteran of the San Diego Sheriff's Department went on to say the road watchers have discovered more than 75 IEDs since the project started - approximately 50 percent of the total number of IEDs in the area.

The road watchers are found across Afghanistan's western Paktika province, the area 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment operates in. The unit has Mine Resistance Ambushed Protected vehicles traveling across Paktika daily, conducting missions for security, governance and development of the area and building partnerships with the ANSF.

"[The road watchers] find a lot of IEDs," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Clint Baker, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment commander. "We tend to find them by hitting them."

Bowles said when he was first driving around Afghanistan, he noticed a lot of armed security standing along the roads. Some thought they might be Taliban. So one day, he stopped and asked them what they were doing. They explained they were private security contractors working on road construction projects. He decided then they would be a great resource to help Afghan and international forces find and disarm IEDs, and he began training them.

"I turned a problem into a solution," he said. "The Afghans are much better at finding IEDs than we are. This is their country, these are their roads, and they can spot them a lot easier than we can."

IEDs are a problem for the entire country, not just international forces here.

"If we don't hit them, the civilians will," he said. "The Taliban control the population through fear, and IEDs are one of their tactics. They don't care who hits them. I've seen family cars hit, taxicabs hit, and even a motorcycle hit that was carrying two adults and two small children."

"It's a lot worse for our cause here if the civilians are hit," he said.

He started the project with only a few Afghans, and now has more than 900. He's quick to explain they don't work for him; he coordinates their efforts and trains them.

"[Project Road Watch] is the most effective C-IED mission we have going," Baker said. "This is absolutely huge when it comes to our operations. These guys are our eyes and ears out there."

Finding the IEDs is only half the story. Once they're found, Bowles trains the Afghans to cordon off the area and notify international forces. Then an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team can move in and disarm the bomb so the ANSF can collect evidence, which is one of Bowles' fortes.

"We've gotten a ton of evidence from these IEDs," he said.

When evidence is collected from the scene of the IED, Afghan national security forces use the investigative training Bowles has given them, so they can track, capture and prosecute the IED emplaces under the Afghan court of law.

The road watchers aren't simply saving lives. They are helping to stop those responsible for attempting to hurt or kill civilians and international forces.

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