A classic beltway tale: once upon a time, if a vaudeville act was so horrible, audience members would heckle it right off the stage, and maybe target it with a few rotten vegetables. But in Washington, despite scathing reviews, watchdog investigations and bare-knuckle insults from lawmakers who hold the purse, Uncle Sam will continue funding a politically insulated program billions of dollars each year, even if lives are at risk.
Thus, the story of JIEDDO (Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization), which, despite getting a total of $21 billion in taxpayer funds over the last seven years, has been accused of chronic mismanagement, redundancy, secrecy, and worst of all, largely failing at its core mission, which is to “focus (lead, advocate, coordinate) all Department of Defense actions in support of the Combatant Commanders’ and their respective Joint task forces’ efforts to defeat IEDs as weapons of strategic influence.”
We cannot tell you the full range of JIEDDO initiatives funded to fulfill this goal because year after year government oversight investigations have been stymied by the lack of transparency, with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying in 2010 that JIEDDO had not yet developed a means for reliably measuring the overall effectiveness of its efforts and investments to combat IEDs. As recently as a year ago, GAO complained again that it could not study the "universe" of counter-IED programs at the Department of Defense because JIEDDO "does not consistently record and track this data."
According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity in 2012, JIEDDO went from a staff of 360 in 2006 to a "monster" of 1,900 personnel – many of them contractors from the usual Beltway Banditry that’s been feasting upon the multi-billion dollar budget for years. One would think they have the resources to pull together a working database. But in a scathing McClatchy News/Center for Public Integrity report in 2011 called "The Manhattan Project that Bombed," it was suggested – by GAO – that perhaps JIEDDO purposefully ignored certain data, because "they would not demonstrate effectiveness."
Well, we can tell you what we do know about JIEDDO’s effectiveness: IED’s remain the most potent killer of soldiers and civilians on the battlefield in Afghanistan today. Ironically, it’s a JIEDDO spokesman in the field in Afghanistan who told reporters as recently as July 25 that "insurgents are able to invest more time in preparing and staging an attack, and when we see an effective attack, it tends to be more lethal to our forces.” Meanwhile, JIEDDO says attacks on coalition troops from April to June were down 17 percent from the same period last year. Imagine, only 4,092 attacks (we’re assuming this means incidents, including detonated and non-detonated IEDs) in three months, according to longtime USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook. But get this – IED attacks on Afghan soldiers and police went up 93 percent in the same period. This is a no-brainer: international forces have not only been shrinking in size because of the drawdown, but they’ve been letting Afghans take the lead against the IED-savvy insurgency. Thus, their casualty rate has skyrocketed over the last year.
And we call that progress.
Afghan civilians are also taking the brunt of the IED problem that was supposed to be thwarted over the last seven years, and in the words of a recent JIEDDO slide briefing, there’s still "a tough road ahead." According to United Nations report released on July 31, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are up 23 percent, reversing last year’s decline, the factors largely driving the spike being the indiscriminate use of roadside bombs and suicide attacks in major population centers.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA., a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said it quite simply two years ago: "so as long as the IED metric keeps going up, and as long as we keep taking the majority of our (killed in action) casualties from IEDs, then they’ve (JIEDDO initiatives) all been unsuccessful. Period." Well the casualty metric for US troops may going down, as we’ve explained above, but IEDs still account for 64 percent of American deaths and wounds, according to JIEDDO’s own recent reporting.
"It’s quite clear that (JIEDDO) and its general approach to the problem is a waste of time and money," said Winslow Wheeler, a budget expert with the Center for Defense Information, which is part of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington.
"It’s certainly important to develop technology to help our tactics but their fundamental approach of ‘let’s throw money at this and it will solve the problem,’ has been, yet again, a complete failure," he told Antiwar.com.
The writing is on the wall, but Congress has been loath to jigger with JIEDDO’s budget up until now. Who wants to be seen as getting stingy with programs designed to save the troops from roadside bombs? But there is a movement afoot to use the new spirit of military draw-downs and cut backs to finally put what has been called, appropriately so, a "slush fund" on the old chopping block, or at least, leaving it up to DoD, which we’re told is fully prepared to do the deed.
Nestled in the massive National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 that just passed the House, is a requirement that DOD decide whether to love JIEDDO or leave it. Congress wants to see plans on their desks within 60 days, outlining the future of the organization after the NDAA is signed. Word is, members are ready to go along with defense plans, already in the works, to either eliminate JIEDDO altogether, break it up and absorb its parts into the different branches of service, or create a scaled down version, at a quarter of the cost, under the Secretary of Defense’s office.
This appears to be the beginning of the end of a beltway boondoggle of massive proportions – and questionable ethical virtue – as we know it. For years, JIEDDO, according to the GAO itself – which on merit doesn’t operate on emotion or politics, but along established "just the facts ma’am" guideposts – has noted a pattern of obfuscation, along with "breaking its own rules" in regards to spending, to the point that GAO couldn’t tell whether the blizzard of anti-IED initiatives was even working, how many there, or where most of the money was even going.
Furthermore, the technological "magic bullet" was never found, rather JIEDDO ended up deploying old tech updated for current wars, like vehicles outfitted with mine rollers, which have their origins in World War II.
All along, soldiers and civilians have been dying or suffering from life-changing wounds. As Wheeler tells Antiwar.com, "they keep on ballyhooing how many lives JIEDDO has saved but the question is, how many lives did they cost us?"
In other words, how much time and energy was wasted while JIEDDO was lavishing big bucks on flash-in-the-pan ideas, like this doozy, a "miracle weapon" that promised to destroy IEDs by harnessing lightning bolts. This contraption was funded $30 million before JIEDDO was forced to admit it never worked.
Meanwhile, much of the stuff that does work are your tried and true tools of the trade: the aforementioned mine rollers, handheld metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, network centric intelligence, culvert covers, surveillance blimps – they’re effective, but they are they really worth billions in research & development funding? We think not.
And yes there has been new, successful technology deployed in the field – like jammers that can disrupt cell phone bomb triggers, or mobile robots that deactivate IEDs – but they were developed by JIEDDO based on research already conducted by previous task forces, according to critics who say JIEDDO spent too much on fielding contractor start ups rather than focusing on a few ideas that could work.
But sadly, even the good tactics have proven not enough for the insurgents, who have responded to each new device with even more lethal and unpredictable adaptations. In 2012, based on numerous reports from troops and embeds in the field, this writer published, "Tell the Truth Already," which detailed the new trend in "dismounted complex blast injuries," the new "signature wound among troops." Insurgents were planting so many of these new IEDs in the ground, which were everywhere and difficult to detect, that soldiers were banking their sperm before deployments. Why? Because the devices exploded up – often ripping apart soldiers’ legs and genitals and even their internal organs. Again, JIEDDO did not come through. I wrote:
… why hadn’t JIEDDO been able to get American troops the pelvic armor the Brits have been wearing since 2010? Why did it take this long to "push through" the bureaucracy for an emergency shipment of 45,000 ballistic overgarments and another 165,000 antimicrobial boxers (protective gear that parents were starting to order themselves for their soldiers in Afghanistan)?
JIEDDO actually blamed the delay, which was finally overcome in December, on a slow procurement process, and "the lack of battle-tested, American-made protection units," according to reporter Jeremy Schwartz for the American-Statesman, Feb. 20. Is this what $21 billion buys these days?
Yes, since one of JIEDDO responsibilities is to "rapidly provide counter-IED capabilities in support of combatant commanders through rapid acquisition," it would seem it failed miserably on this score.
A year before, despite then-Gen. David Petraeus’s efforts to put lipstick on a pig, we detailed the 120 percent increase of amputations among wounded soldiers from 2009 to 2010, and the 40 percent increase of IED fatalities year over year. Yet Petraeus was telling reporters in September 2010 that Taliban use of IEDs had flattened. We know now that deaths actually peaked in 2010 to 368.
Furthermore, we’ve read numerous accounts of soldiers using their own ingenuity to combat the threat. Like Army Reservist Cpl. Eric DeHart, an engineer by trade, who eventually decided to design a steel contraption that could be shoved inside any size culvert, denying what had become a useful spot for planting IEDs. It seemed to work, and his plans were sent to other units in southern Afghanistan.
Yeah, it worked so well, that the US government decided to pay Afghan contractors $32 million to start planting the "culvert denial systems" in some 2,500 locations. But a recent inspector general’s report warned that there was not enough documentation or oversight to determine whether those contractors ever followed through. In fact, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) warned late last year that a number of gratings on a major highway frequented by US troops were never installed.
"The loss of life because individuals were not doing their job is horrific and unacceptable," said SIGAR John Sopko in July.
"This case shows so clearly that fraud can kill in Afghanistan. We will find out if contracting officers did not do their job and if that proves to be true and Americans have died, we will hold those individuals accountable."
Many would say it’s too late. Somehow it is even harder to stomach JIEDDO when you see the failures in such stark relief. Wheeler blames the Congress, for believing all along that throwing money at technological gizmos would resolve the problem.
"Because of their feeblemindedness, they couldn’t think their way out of it and come up with a more effective alternative solution to the land mine problem," Wheeler noted. "So they were caught in a trap, thinking ‘oh, if we are found reducing the money someone will attack us for not supporting the troops.’"
Grab tomato, aim, and release.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos
Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos
- Brother Karzai Leaves Election, Joins Another Ticket – March 10th, 2014
- The Wailing Cassandras Return – February 27th, 2014
- Afghanistan: It’s the Election, Stupid! – February 19th, 2014
- How a CIA Whistleblower Survives Behind Bars – February 9th, 2014
- Jason Leopold Talks Forensic Journalism – February 2nd, 2014