WASHINGTON - Although the surge of insider
attacks on United States-North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) forces has dominated coverage
of the war in Afghanistan in 2012, an even more
important story has been quietly unfolding: the US
loss to the Taliban of the pivotal war of
improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
news outlets published stories this year
suggesting that the US military was making
progress against the Taliban IED war. These failed
to provide the broader context for seasonal trends
or had a narrow focus on US fatalities. The bigger
reality is that the US troop surge could not
reverse the very steep increase in IED attacks and
attendant casualties that the Taliban began in
2009 and which continued through 2011.
Over the 2009-11 period, the US military
suffered a total of 14,627
casualties, according to
the Pentagon's Defense Casualty Analysis System
and iCasualties, a non-governmental organization
tracking Iraq and Afghanistan war casualties from
Of that total, 8,680,
or 59%, were from IED explosions, based on data
provided by the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat
Organization (JIEDDO). The proportion of all US
casualties caused by IEDs continued to increase
from 56% in 2009 to 63% in 2011.
Taliban IED war was the central element of its
counter-strategy against the US escalation of the
war. It absorbed an enormous amount of the time
and energy of US troops, and demonstrated that the
counter-insurgency campaign was not effective in
reducing the size or power of the insurgency. It
also provided constant evidence to the Afghan
population that the Taliban had a continued
presence even where US troops had occupied former
US Pentagon and
military leaders sought to gain control over the
Taliban's IED campaign with two contradictory
approaches, both of which failed because they did
not reflect the social and political realities in
JIEDDO spent more than US$18
billion on high-tech solutions aimed at detecting
IEDs before they went off, including robots and
blimps with spy cameras. But as the technology
helped the US-NATO command discover more IEDs, the
Taliban simply produced and planted even larger
numbers of bombs to continue to increase the
pressure of the IED war.
counter-insurgency strategy devised by General
David Petraeus and implemented by General Stanley
A McChrystal, on the other hand, held that the IED
networks could be destroyed once the people turned
away from the Taliban. They pushed thousands of US
troops out of their armored vehicles into patrols
on foot in order to establish relationships with
the local population. The main effect of the
strategy, however, was a major jump in the number
of catastrophic injuries to US troops from IEDs.
In a August 30, 2009, initial assessment,
McChrystal said the International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF) could not succeed if it is
unwilling to share risk at least equally with the
people. In an interview with USA Today in July
2009, he argued that the best way to defeat IEDs
would be to defeat the Taliban's hold on the
people. Once the people's trust had been gained,
he suggested, they would inform ISAF of the
location of IEDs.
McChrystal argued that
the Taliban were using the psychological effects
of IEDs and the coalition forces' preoccupation
with force protection to get the US-NATO command
to reinforce "a garrison posture and mentality".
McChrystal ordered much more emphasis on
more dismounted patrols by US forces in fall 2009.
The Taliban responded by increasing the number of
IEDs targeting dismounted patrols from 71 in
September 2009 to 228 by January 2010, according
data compiled by JIEDDO.
That meant that
the population had more knowledge of the location
of IEDs, which should have resulted in a major
increase in IEDs turned in by the population,
according to the Petraeus counter-insurgency
theory. The data on IEDs show that the opposite
happened. In the first eight months of 2009, the
average rate of turn-ins had been 3%, but from
September 2009 to June 2010, the rate averaged
After Petraeus replaced McChrystal
as ISAF commander in June 2010, he issued a
directive calling for more dismounted patrols,
especially in Helmand and Kandahar, where US
troops were trying to hold territory that the
Taliban had controlled in previous years.
In the next five months, the turn-in rate
fell to less than 1%.
number of IED attacks on foot patrols causing
casualties increased from 21 in October 2009 to an
average of 40 in the March-December 2010 period,
according to JIEDDO records. US troops wounded by
IEDs spiked to an average of 316 per month during
that period, 2.5 times more than the average for
the previous 10-month period.
success in targeting troops on foot was the main
reason US casualties from IEDs increased from
1,211 wounded and 159 dead in 2009 to 3,366
wounded and 259 dead in 2010.
from IEDs was far more serious, however, than even
those figures suggest because the injuries to
dismounted patrols included far more traumatic
amputation of limbs - arms and legs blown off by
bombs - and other more-severe wounds than had been
seen in attacks on armored vehicles.
June 2011 Army task force report described a new
type of battle injury - Dismount Complex Blast
Injury. This was defined as a combination of
traumatic amputation of at least one leg, a
minimum of severe injury to another extremity, and
pelvic, abdominal, or urogenital wounding. The
report confirmed that the number of triple limb
amputations in 2010 alone had been twice the total
in the previous eight years of war.
study of 194 amputations in 2010 and the first
three months of 2011 showed that most were
suffered by Marine Corps troops, who were
concentrated in Helmand province, and that 88%
were the result of IED attacks on dismounted
patrols, according to the report. In January 2011,
the director of JIEDDO, General John L Oates,
acknowledged that US troops in Helmand and
Kandahar had seen an alarming increase in the
number of troops losing one or two legs to IEDs.
Much larger numbers of US troops have
suffered moderate to severe traumatic brain
injuries from IED blasts mostly against armored
vehicles. Statistics on the total number of limb
amputations and traumatic brain injuries in
Afghanistan were excised from the task force
In 2011, US fatalities from IEDs
fell to 204 from 259 in 2010, and overall
fatalities fell to 418 from 499. But the number of
IED injuries actually increased by 10% to 3,530
from 3,339, and the overall total of wounded in
action was almost the same as in 2010, according
to data from iCasualties.
The total for
wounded in the first eight months of 2012 is 10%
less than in the same period in 2011, whereas the
number of dead is 29% below the previous year's
The reduction in wounded appears to
reflect in part the transfer of thousands of US
troops from Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where
a large proportion of the casualties have
occurred, to eastern Afghanistan. The number of
IED attacks on dismounted patrols in the mid-July
2011 to mid-July 2012 period was 25% less than the
number in the same period a year earlier,
according to JIEDDO.
The Pentagon was well
aware by early 2011 that it wasn't going to be
able to accomplish what it had planned before and
during the troop surge. In a telling comment to
the Washington Post in January 2011, JIEDDO head
General Oates insisted that the idea that "we're
losing" the IED fight in Afghanistan was "not
accurate", because, "The whole idea isn't to
destroy the network. That may be impossible."
The aim, he explained, was now to disrupt
them, a move of the goalposts that avoided having
to admit defeat in the IED war.
And in an
implicit admission that Petraeus's push for even
more dismounted patrols is no longer treated with
reverence in the ISAF command, the August 2010
directive has been taken down from its website.
Gareth Porter, an investigative
historian and journalist specializing in US
national security policy, received the UK-based
Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for
articles on the US war in Afghanistan.