Gen. David Petraeus has been gone but a month from his role as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, yet we’re already seeing the paint on his Potemkin village peel away to reveal an unseemly rot underneath.
That may sound a bit harsh, but there is no better way to describe one of the greatest meme-smashing, not to mention heartrending realities now emerging from embeds and soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan today: coalition soldiers being blown apart by insurgent IEDs more frequently, and with more deadly precision than any other time in the nearly 10-year conflict.
The “rotten” thing is that this has been going on for more than a year and getting worse, yet Congress and the mainstream media have allowed Petraeus and his message machine to not only distort the number, frequency and effectiveness of IED attacks, but de-emphasize the increase in life-altering injuries, particularly amputations, among coalition and Afghan soldiers.
According to the most recent data, there was a 120 percent rise in wounded soldiers undergoing amputations from 2009 to 2010 (75 cases to 171 cases, the steepest increase being in the last four months of the year). There was also a dramatic hike in soldiers suffering amputations of more than one limb and genital injuries, and an overall increase — 40 percent — in IED fatalities year-over-year.
As of Aug. 1, there were 158 IED-related coalition deaths (the vast majority American) in 2011, according to data posted at iCasualties. There were 368 such fatalities in 2010.
Yet Gen. Petraeus told two Wall Street Journal reporters in September 2010 that IED use by the Taliban had “generally flattened.”
I wrote in this space two weeks ago that there seemed to be a vacuum in Afghanistan war coverage, with mainstream media resources stretched and compromised, and the Pentagon forcing its own tired, inexorable PR filter on the situation there. But something is happening. Embeds are starting to write in frank and often gruesome detail how IEDs have been consuming the lives of soldiers and medics in the field — with no respite in sight.
Writes Ben Brody for the GlobalPost:
There are signs on the bases here that instruct soldiers to keep their tourniquets in their right shoulder pocket. Should a soldier need a tourniquet, that is likely to be the only pocket they have left.
The sign explains, “Unfortunately limbs being lost by IEDs are the left arm, and both legs.”
Last week, Brody profiled the medics who save the lives of soldiers who in earlier wars most certainly would have died from their wounds.
“I hate the smell of this helicopter,” said Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn, a flight medic with Charlie Co., 1/52 Aviation. “When you wash the blood out and you smell all the iron — it gets in your clothes and you smell it while you’re eating.”
Minutes after returning from a Medevac mission and having the blood hosed out of Flynn’s helicopter by the base fire department, another call comes in…
A soldier I remember from the patrol is brought in on a stretcher. He is missing his left foot and his right leg is shattered, his one remaining boot flopped over at a lurid angle. His left arm is gone below the elbow, and he holds the gauze-wrapped stump in the air as the medics slide the stretcher into the roaring helicopter.
On Sunday, Corrine Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot published the first in a series of stories about the NATO hospital “in the heart of Taliban country at Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling, heavily fortified southern NATO base that’s attacked with rockets so routinely that no one bothers to panic anymore when the sirens sound.”
(Ah, Kandahar, the place where Petraeus has insisted we have “arrested the momentum” of the insurgency, though the Mayor, the police chief, the senior cleric and the district’s most influential power broker, President Karzai’s brother, have all been assassinated there within the last month.)
A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.
“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”
He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.
On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.
Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle…
A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.
It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.
It says he is 19 years old…
Even staff members who’ve served multiple combat tours say they’ve never seen injuries as devastating — or as numerous — as those they witness here. Nearly three-quarters of their patients come directly from the battlefield, the vast majority of them victims of insurgent-made bombs — what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Their signature wounds are double- and triple- limb amputations with severe injuries to the pelvis and genitals.
Jon Boone, Afghanistan correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, recently broke his leg slipping into a ditch on patrol with American and Afghan soldiers in the Zhari district of Kandahar province. After the Afghan Humvee in which he was being transported crashed in another ditch, America soldiers produced “a stretcher from nowhere” and helped him out of the pit and “over a couple of walls — all in an effort to avoid the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that could be anywhere,” he wrote on July 25.
Because these homemade bombs have become ever more sophisticated it is now almost impossible to detect them. The insurgents have learned to reduce the amount of metal in the bombs to a minimum, making traditional mine-searching devices — essentially souped-up metal detectors — useless. The only way to avoid IEDs is to take bizarre routes through the lush farmland the Americans and their Afghan colleagues are trying to cleanse of Taliban.
Breaking a leg was “a personal disaster…but my experience pales in comparison to the horrors of what bombs and IEDs do to soldiers almost every day,” Boone continued.
He recalled talking to a medic while he was waiting for the Americans to bring set him off for the hospital in Kabul.
(He) told me about the last casualty he had dealt with a few weeks previously who stepped on an IED. He’d lost both his legs and his genitals. The wounds were so terrible that the medic not only exhausted all his combat gauze — a remarkable material that staunches even the most aggressive pumping of blood — but also the gauze being carried by all the other soldiers in the platoon, as he stuffed the wounded man’s wounds with it.
The man is still alive due to the rapid response. But one wonders at the quality of his life ahead. As David Wood at The Huffington Post reported in May:
In some cases, American military surgeons tell The Huffington Post, these traumatic amputations occur so close to soldiers’ hips that it is difficult to fit prosthetic legs, severely limiting the patients’ future mobility and rehabilitation. In addition, the loss of sexual function for formerly healthy young men in their early 20s causes severe anxiety and depression and can wreck new marriages.
According to the latest figures by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), insurgent attacks reached an all-time peak of 1,571 this May. Afghan soldiers are clearly taking their own hits. According to Gen. Zahir Azimi of the Afghan Defense Ministry, 109 Afghan troops were killed from June 22 to July 26, “with (the) majority of them in roadside bomb and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks throughout the country,” he told reporters. This was up from a similar period in May where 68 ANA deaths were reported.
According to iCasualties, 65 coalition troops were killed in June and 54 in July. Of them, 80 Americans were killed in that time period. Civilian deaths are also up 15 percent, mostly from roadside and suicide bombings. Last week, the carnage continued, with at least 39 civilians, many of them children under the age of 13 killed by land mines in two separate incidents in southern Afghanistan.
In early July, veteran and military embed Michael Yon wrote about how the enemy is designing explosive devices to elude the coalition’s rudimentary IED detection tools, like the hand-held metal detectors many are using today. The insurgents he said are now using plastic or wood or the carbon rods extricated from regular batteries for explosive triggers.
The enemy sees our people use metal detectors every day. Last time I was with the British, hardly a step was taken without waving the divining rod over the ground. You try to step into the step of the troop in front of you, and there are times when you don’t even take a single step off that hairline, intermittent path unless you are in a firefight. But even on paths that are “cleared,” if only by a metal detector and then only the precise footsteps you are trying to match — which dangerously refocuses your attention — hat is not enough …
The “cleared” path is not cleared. The only part that has been pressure-tested has a boot print as a seal of approval, and that’s only true on ground where you can see a boot print…. Still, the boot print stamp of approval is worth little more than an Afghan promissory note. Oftentimes the first trooper who steps on a trigger does not get blown up. It might be the third or fourth or seventh. Others already have stepped on the trigger but it did not fire. Even that is not the rest of the story. The bomb itself often is not with the trigger. The man who steps on a simple land mine is the man who bears the brunt. But with these IEDs, the trigger might detonate multiple explosives “daisy chained” along the way.
Embed Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last Friday wrote about the men of Wasau-based 428th Engineer Co., who spend their days IED hunting along the roads outside Forward Operating Base Pasab, 60 kilometers northwest of Kandahar.
The 428th uses unmanned aerial drones to spot anomalies and heat-seeking radar that beams images of what’s underground to computer screens outfitted in a heavily armed tractor called a “Husky.” It leads a convoy of armored vehicles on a 10 to 12-hour daily mission.
Sometimes the troops themselves come up with ways to mitigate the IED threat. In the same platoon, Jones reports, Army Reservist Cpl. Eric DeHart, an engineer by trade, designed a steel contraption that, when welded in a certain way, could be shoved inside any size culvert, denying what has become a convenient spot for planting IEDs. The device seemed to work, so DeHart’s engineering plans were sent to other units in southern Afghanistan.
This is impressive, seeing that the Pentagon has already spent $21 billion through its Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) to mitigate the threat of IEDs, and couldn’t do any better than the ingenuity of one soldier.
Calling it “the Manhattan Project that bombed,” iWatch News/McClatchy Newspapers said in a sweeping exposé last March that JIEDDO “has not found a high-tech way to detect or defeat these so-called [IEDs] from a safe distance. In fact, the rate at which soldiers are able to find IEDs before they explode has remained mostly steady, at roughly 50 percent, since JIEDDO was formed (in 2006).”
Despite the news investigation, which found JIEDDO to be a “secretive agency” that “has violated its own accounting rules, failed to harness data on what works, and has often seemed to loathe to discuss to Congress just how all that money was spent,” not to mention the official audits that found JIEDDO’s programs mismanaged, poorly chosen and redundant, the House just approved another $2.7 billion for JIEDDO’s FY2012 budget. That’s $5 million more than it got in 2011, according to Corbin Hiar at iWatch News in July.
Sadly, Hiar reports, despite all of the red flags, no elected official wants to be seen cutting funds for IED prevention. So they give JIEDDO what they ask for, and then some.
That is the perversity of Washington for you — where politics are more important than people. While we expect our soldiers and their families to be brave in the face of the unknown, we condone a culture inhabited by pusillanimous politicians who put those same soldiers’ lives at risk in order to avoid casting a brave vote against yet another budgetary sacred cow. Why not take a few of these so-called “leaders” on a new sort of CODEL, one that forces them to spend a few days, not just a few minutes, with a Medevac unit, or requires them to stuff tourniquets in their flak jackets before heading on a real convoy, like this one, recalled by Stars and Stripes writer Neil Shea:
A line of 20 trucks sat grumbling in the darkness, loaded down with dismantled pieces of an American combat outpost and stopped in their tracks by a roadside bomb. It was after 2 a.m.
The trucks had been waiting for hours as bomb techs traveled to the site, not far from a police checkpoint that had been attacked a short while earlier.
They were easy targets. Harder to resist the longer they sat still.
None of the options seemed good. When the explosive ordnance disposal team arrived it looked into a culvert running beneath the road and found two jugs and a propane tank — 75 to 100 pounds of homemade explosive, plus whatever was in the tank. The bomb techs wanted to blow it in place.
The resulting crater would most likely wreck northern Wardak province’s second most important road, possibly disrupting traffic for weeks, and stranding the trucks with their cargo.
It seemed that EOD, with the best intentions, was about to sow the Taliban’s chaos for them. What other options were there?
In this story of the convoy we recognize more than a nighttime logistical dilemma but a metaphor for our present standing in the war: plain stuck. After nearly 10 years of fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan, Western occupying forces — which number some 132,000 and include the most expensive, most advanced weapons and medical and surveillance equipment on earth — cannot seem to get to the goal line, no matter how much it has been moved around to accommodate our lowered expectations.
In fact, seeing these refreshingly candid, but altogether bleak and disturbing IED stories only confirms that are losing ground, farther away from “winning” than ever.
So why the proliferation of reports now, especially when the military has been so good at filtering bad news in the past?
Some suggest that the Pentagon is using the spike in IED violence to once again invoke anti-Iranian paranoia by accusing the government in Tehran of transferring IEDs to the insurgency (see remarks by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in July).
More likely, the ability of the military to maintain the smoke screen amid the carnage of its ranks has reached saturation. Confidence in the war has plummeted on both sides of the civilian–military divide. Perhaps commanders no longer see the sanctity of the “progress” meme as important as letting the world know how hard their men and women are working to save people’s lives in the face of diminishing odds.
With Petraeus gone, and a withdrawal plan beginning, albeit slowly, we may be seeing the first planks of the Potemkin edifice being torn down in earnest. As a public long starving for the truth, we should welcome it.