Petraeus Spin on IED War Belied by Soaring Casualties
WASHINGTON - Gen. David Petraeus claimed limited success this week in the war within a war over the Taliban's planting of roadside bombs, but official Pentagon data shows the Taliban clearly winning that war by planting more bombs and killing many more U.S. and NATO troops since the troop surge began in early 2010.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, Petraeus asserted that the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban had "flattened" over the past year and attributed that alleged success to pressures by the U.S. military, and especially the increased tempo of Special Operations Forces raids against Taliban units.
Data provided by the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), however, shows that IEDs planted by Afghan insurgents killed nearly 40 percent more U.S. and NATO troops in the first eight months of 2010 than in the comparable period of 2009.
The data also show that Taliban IEDs wounded 2,025 U.S. and NATO troops in the first eight months of this year - almost twice the 1,035 wounded in the same months last year.
In the Journal interview, Petraeus said that the data on violent incidents in Afghanistan indicate a slowly improving security situation.
Without putting his statement in quotation marks, Journal reporters Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg reported Petraeus as claiming that the use of IEDs "has generally flattened in the past year". While crediting U.S. military operations with this alleged improvement, Petraeus said it is too soon to say that they are the sole reason for this alleged flattening of IED incidents.
But the data for 2009 and 2010 provide no support for Petraeus's "flattened" description.
The 12-month moving average of IED incidents, provided in a report in July by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the basis of JIEDDO data, shows a continuing and sharp increase from 250 in June 2009 to more than 900 in May 2010, for an average increase per month of 54 incidents.
The total number of IED incidents in Afghanistan began to rise steeply in March 2010 to a new high of 1,087 and then continued to climb to 1,128 in May and again to 1,258 in August.
In a related effort to spin the IED issue more favourably to the war effort, Maj. Michael G. Johnson, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanded by Petraeus, was quoted in a USA Today story published Tuesday as saying that there had been a "dip" in deaths and injuries from IEDs over the previous 12 weeks compared to the same period in 2009.
But the JIEDDO figures on deaths and injuries to U.S. and NATO forces from IEDs from June through August 2010 total 271 casualties - a 30 percent increase over the total for those months a year ago.
In response to a query from IPS, however, Johnson said he was including deaths and injuries to Afghan security personnel and civilians as well.
Killing and wounding foreign troops is generally understood to be the objective of the Taliban's IED war and the reduction of those casualties is the objective of Petraeus's command.
Petraeus had previously been more cautious about claiming success in the IED war. In an interview with Spencer Ackerman of the website Danger Room Aug. 18, Petraeus only referred to growing pressures on the Taliban organising for IEDs from both U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems and from SOF units.
But when Ackerman pointed out that IED attacks were rising, Petraeus asserted that the increase could be because U.S. and coalition forces are "on the offensive...taking away areas that matter to the enemy, safe havens and sanctuaries."
Challenged by Ackerman on an interpretation that turned an obvious indicator of a failing war effort into an indicator of progress, however, Petraeus retreated, saying, "That's fair enough."
Both the Ackerman interview and Johnson's statement illustrate the Petraeus tactic of making statements that mislead by omission or tendentious interpretation rather than making statements that could be proven false.
The Petraeus statement to the Journal about "flattened" IED figures, however, appears to go beyond that tactic.
The JIEDDO data on IED incidents by month also provides evidence that the U.S. and NATO forces have failed to win the trust of the population in the Pashtun provinces where the Taliban have been strongest. The JIEDDO figures show that the proportion of IEDs turned in by the population has continued to fall with each passing year since the NATO military buildup in Pashtun areas began in 2006.
In late 2005, the civilian population was informing U.S. and NATO troops of about 15 percent of of all IEDs planted. That proportion fell to just over nine percent in 2006, to less than seven percent in 2007 to about three percent in 2008, and again to 2.8 percent in 2009.
In the first six months of 2010, that ratio dropped to 2.6 percent, and in May and June it fell to 1.4 and one percent, respectively.
A paper by four authors, including former Petraeus adviser David Kilcullen, published by the pro-war Center for New American Security in June 2009 highlighted the importance of the proportion of IEDs turned in by the population as an indicator of good relations between U.S. and NATO military units and the local population.
A rise in the proportion of IEDs found and cleared, especially because of tips from the population, would be a "sign of progress", the authors concluded.
The head of JIEDDO, Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, appears to agree with that analysis. In an interview with USA Today published last March, Oates said winning the trust of the Afghan population is "a key ingredient" in protecting U.S. troops from IEDs.
The steep decline in the proportion of IEDs turned in by the population as more U.S. and NATO troops intruded on the Pashtun countryside is another reliable indicator - supporting opinion surveys in Helmand and Kandahar provinces - of the deterioration of relations between foreign troops and the population.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.