Tell the Truth Already!

“Dismounted complex blast injuries” caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan are felling our soldiers and Marines so frequently today that men are routinely banking their sperm as another item on the checklist before they deploy for the war.

They’re doing that because a dismounted complex blast injury — now being called the “new signature wound” of the Afghan conflict — can not only cause the amputation of multiple limbs, but often results in irreversible genital and pelvic injuries, meaning urinary tracts, genitals and bowels are being destroyed even as the victim stays alive.

Emergency amputations in these cases sever the legs so close to the hip that it’s sometimes impossible to fit a prosthesis, and sexual function is gone forever.

Just another grim metric of our “success” in Afghanistan you won’t hear from the lips of generals — at least not in public.

The IEDs are being planted by insurgents to attack men on patrol, so that when they walk over them the explosives blast upward, “producing a shock wave that can separate skin from muscle,” describes a Feb. 21 feature by Jeremy Schwartz in the American-Statesman.

What limbs aren’t severed in the immediate explosion are still at risk, as rock, sand and metal fragments are “hurled upward, penetrating skin and embedding in tissue and organs, resulting in wounds that are very difficult to treat and infections that require amputation.”

In 2011, just as then-Gen. David Petraeus was assuring Congress that the Taliban had been whipped, amputations were continuing to spike (the year before saw a 120 percent increase in lost limbs) with more than 1,600 IED attacks in June alone.

In 2010, there were more IED deaths than the first eight years of the war combined. According to iCasualties, there were 275 such fatalities in 2009, 368 in 2010 and 252 in 2011. The number of IED deaths may be ultimately down — 12 in 2012 so far — but battlefield medicine is allowing more of these guys to come home on a stretcher instead of a box, which then allows the military to better obfuscate how bad it’s become out there.

According to USA Today, there were 16,554 reports of cleared or detonated IEDs in Afghanistan — a record high — up from 15,225 in 2010 and 9,304 in 2009.

No one seems to count the Afghan military’s IED casualties, which have to be similarly high.

Just as important is the civilian impact. The number of Afghan civilians killed by these bombs jumped 10 percent in 2011. According to the most recent United Nations report, a record 3,021 civilians were killed in 2011, 967 of them from IED blasts.

“Over all, the 39-page report charts a series of disturbing signs that suggest the country is becoming ever more dangerous for ordinary Afghans,” The New York Times wrote on Feb 4.

To think that the wizards of counterinsurgency were telling us just three years ago that the success of the war would depend on whether the Afghan population could be protected and secured. Apparently the goal posts had been shifted and we never got the memo.

Not that we’d hear much of that from the likes of Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, nor U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who were tag-teaming media interviews last week after the Quran burnings at Bagram air base led to protests and riots all over the country.

They were in part attempting to respond to the “rapidly growing systemic threat” of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their western trainers — more than 77 killed in the last five years, three-quarters of that number in the last two years.

In the last two weeks, six American personnel were killed by Afghan soldiers.

On the counterinsurgency, Ambassador Crocker told the BBC last week, “I think we have made tremendous progress.” As he and Gen. John Allen, top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan tried to tamp down rumors of a “tipping point” in the war on Fox News’ Special Report March 1, Gen. Allen carefully used the word “success,” but offered no details nor any discernible hint of confidence.

Not only that, but Allen and Crocker talked about the “tremendous trust” between the NATO and Afghan soldiers. Now that’s a crock (no pun intended).

Anyone who’s done a little homework on the subject knows better. (Note: this staggering survey of Afghan and American troops cited by The Wall Street Journal has been classified after initial distribution. A break-out of some of the most damning details can be found in Michael Hastings’ The Operators).

Frankly, it’s getting more difficult for leaders like Allen and Crocker to insult our intelligence with all of their fancy broad-brushed platitudes, because too many soldiers are coming home to expose the sham.

The proverbial genie is out of the bottle.

Killing the Messenger?

Lt. Col. Daniel Davis is only the latest, but perhaps the timeliest and most damaging to the status quo. He exploded on the scene last month with his treatise, “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan,” published in Armed Forces Journal, as well as a longer 84-page assessment to Congress, damningly entitled, Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort, purposefully invoking H.R. McMaster’s 1998 book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.

Davis had spent the last year in Afghanistan talking with U.S. troops and Afghan solders as part of an Army Rapid Equipping Force. His daunting conclusion: “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.” He continues:

Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.

Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.

Davis offers several examples that, while anecdotal, are no different from those shared with growing frequency and conviction by soldiers and vets on various foreign policy and military blogs today:

In August, I went on a dismounted patrol with troops in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province. Several troops from the unit had recently been killed in action, one of whom was a very popular and experienced soldier. One of the unit’s senior officers rhetorically asked me, “How do I look these men in the eye and ask them to go out day after day on these missions? What’s harder: How do I look [my soldier’s] wife in the eye when I get back and tell her that her husband died for something meaningful? How do I do that?”

One of the senior enlisted leaders added, “Guys are saying, ‘I hope I live so I can at least get home to R&R leave before I get it,’ or ‘I hope I only lose a foot.’ Sometimes they even say which limb it might be: ‘Maybe it’ll only be my left foot.’ They don’t have a lot of confidence that the leadership two levels up really understands what they’re living here, what the situation really is.” …

…In all of the places I visited, the tactical situation was bad to abysmal.

He describes with equal candor the lack of confidence in the Afghan National Army — a complete contradiction to what Crocker and Allen had been charging last week. Davis has had enough of the kabuki, and tells us in blunt terms:

How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by U.S. senior leaders in Afghanistan? No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.

Not surprisingly, court stenographers like Tom Ricks were soon giving a forum to critics who largely questioned Davis’ motivations and his delivery, but left his salient points about the failure of the mission, largely untouched. That, it would seem, was beyond debate.

This, and the recent eruption of violence over the Quran burnings, are clearly making it more difficult to defend a long-term military solution for Afghanistan, though some war hawks are still trying, as evidenced in this piece of ISAF public relations by David Gerson, former speech writer for President Bush (questions in brackets mine):

Obama’s Afghan strategy — including a large troop surge and expanded training and mentoring of Afghan forces — is more successful than some credit. In the south — the Taliban homeland — insurgents have been deprived of sanctuaries and weapons caches. Violence in that region was down by a third in 2011 compared to the previous year [who says?]. About 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are now deployed across the country. More than half of American military forces engage in joint operations with their Afghan counterparts [who’s in the lead?]. While conditions in Afghanistan’s north and west have deteriorated during the last few years, the overall levels of violence are not severe. The east has serious and growing challenges [ya think?].

… Gains in Afghanistan are not as dramatic as those in Iraq circa 2008. But they provide a reasonable hope that security responsibilities can be shifted to Afghan forces by 2014, with American troops playing a supportive role.

The administration needs all the Gerson hackery it can get as it scrambles to negotiate a longer presence beyond the so-called 2014 deadline for a full troop withdrawal. Parallel to this, NATO has been discussing what kind of role it will have after 2014, too.

Back to the IEDs…

What is probably the most difficult to accept is that apologists like Gerson would blithely send our soldiers and Marines into a meat grinder for what most Americans, even the veterans of the war, deem a “waste” of blood and treasure. Plus, al Qaeda is gone (though White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested otherwise in a fantastical set of briefing remarks last week), and we’re supposedly talking to the Taliban. We don’t even pretend to be nation building anymore.

But our lengthy interventions have made many an enterprise very rich and content to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul. In addition to the billion-dollar federal contractors, whole new taxpayer-funded bureaucracies have been constructed out of whole cloth, like the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). Its stated mission is to neutralize the threat of IEDs, and boy, they’re doing a bang-up job.

JIEDDO wants $1.7 billion for Fiscal Year 2013, down from the $2.7 billion it’s getting this year, but let’s face it, JIEDDO’s been a government boondoggle from the beginning, spending some $21 billion since its inception in 2006. Ragtag insurgents with fertilizer and a prayer are picking off our troops one by one — and quickly adapting to our detection capabilities — while JIEDDO insists that a high-tech solution is ever around the corner.

Furthermore, JIEDDO it is not the only anti-IED government venture, which clutters the landscape, making it doubly sad as the attacks keep coming in greater force and ingenuity. “So long as the IED metric keeps going up, and as long as we keep taking the majority of our (killed in action) casualties from IED, then (the efforts have) all been unsuccessful … period,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in an iWatch News investigation last spring.

But Congress keeps funding JIEDDO, which allows it in part to put out high-gloss schlock like its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan, which talks a lot about giving the troops the tools to detect and defuse IEDs but provides no detail (not even within unclassified limits) on how it plans to make that happen.

In fact, the document is weighted down with meaningless shopworn phrases like “whole of government” solutions and an ominous warning that IEDs will become a threat to “the homeland” and “are here to stay,” suggesting the agency is more interested in carving out a 50-year mission (and budget) for itself than it is in resolving these immediate threats and closing up shop. This is how Washington bureaucracies grow and flourish, though: with lots of fertilizer — the foul-smelling kind — and a long, long-range scope.

If not, 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?

Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable. JIEDDO might be content to spend the next decade sucking down our tax dollars while it attempts to find a cure for crafty insurgents hell bent on blasting our military footprint to bits, but we shouldn’t be —that’s too many new “dismounted complex blast injuries” to contemplate.

When Gen. John Allen was asked how the troops were faring after the riot murders last week, he said, “morale is good.”


Come on, tell the truth already.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.