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WASHINGTON — U.S. troop deaths and wounds from makeshift bombs in Afghanistan dropped by almost half in 2012 as Afghan forces take a larger share of fighting and Americans find and defuse more bombs than ever, according to Pentagon data.
Improvised explosive devices — the top threat in Afghanistan — killed 104 U.S. troops in 2012 compared with 196 in 2011, a 46 percent decline. Bombs wounded fewer, too, from 3,542 in 2011 to 1,744 in 2012, a 50(PERCENT) drop.
A flood of surveillance equipment, metal detectors and intensive training have helped spur the decline in casualties, said Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who commands the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization.
"Finally, our war fighters and commanders in the field are the best counter-IED capability we have," Barbero said. "They get it and have a deep and thorough understanding of the enemy, the IED threat and how to attack it."
Overall, makeshift bomb attacks in Afghanistan in 2012 dropped by about 8 percent from their record high in 2011.
There were 15,222 incidents involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in 2012. An IED event is a bomb that explodes, one that is found and defused or the discovery of a cache of explosives.
Afghan troops, however, suffered a 124 percent increase in 2012 in the number of IED attacks against them, records show, a sign of their growing role on the battlefield. The complete 2012 statistics show the number of attacks against Afghans rose in the second half of 2012.
"The concern is that knowing they are more susceptible might make (Afghan security forces) a more attractive target, and perhaps IED attacks against them would increase in 2013," said Jeffrey Dressler, an expert on Afghanistan at the Institute for the Study of War. "If insurgents understand this is an effective tactic, it may be used more and constrain the ability of Afghan security forces to patrol."
Although the number of attacks against U.S. troops dropped in 2012, "globally, I'm seeing the spread of threat networks and the related proliferation of IEDs to places like Mali, Syria and other hot spots around the globe," Barbero said. "We also see increased IED activity in Pakistan and Iraq."
Barbero said the Afghan Taliban insurgents will continue to use IEDs "as the weapon of choice" when the spring fighting season starts in Afghanistan.
The good news from Afghanistan: U.S. forces continue to get better at finding bombs before they explode. For instance, American troops on foot, armed with metal detectors and trained to spot booby traps, find 86 percent of bombs before they go off. That's up 9 percentage points from 2011.
The bad: IEDs still cause 61perecnt of the wounds and deaths U.S. troops suffer. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to be the source of most of the fertilizer used to fashion homemade explosives.
One reason for the reduced number of incidents against U.S. forces is that there are fewer troops to attack or to find IEDs and weapons caches while on patrol. About 30,000 U.S. troops returned home from Afghanistan in 2012; there are about 66,000 U.S. troops there now. In 2013, there will be even fewer patrols as the U.S. pulls back more units in anticipation of a full withdrawal in 2014.
The U.S. military has spent tens of billions of dollars to protect troops against IEDs and to crack bomb-making networks since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. The Pentagon has spent $45 billion on armored vehicles known as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks and billions more on spy planes and other devices designed to alert troops to bombs before they blow up.
Afghan forces, on the other hand, travel in trucks with little or no armor and lack sophisticated spyware and bomb-detection equipment.
"There is a strong likelihood that the Taliban will attempt to infiltrate Afghan forces, conduct assassinations as part of green-on-green attacks, and target them using IEDs," said Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan with the RAND Corp. "In short, I suspect we'll see a continuing decline in U.S. casualties from IEDs and a notable growth in Afghan casualties."
Although the annual figure dropped from the record of 16,731 IEDs in 2011, last year had the single-highest month of attacks since the war began in 2001. That was in June, with 1,927 bombs blew up or were rendered safe.