After more than ten years, it’s easy to anticipate that news about the war will fall mostly on deaf ears during the summer months. How many could even say how many military personnel we still have there today? The good news: we’re half-way there on a drawdown of 23,000 troops by the end of the year. The bad news: that’ll still leave some 70,000 Americans in Afghanistan.
But that is not the worst of it. While Washington struggles to put the best face on what is clearly a pathetic end to a decade-long military/civilian mission in Afghanistan, reports indicate that insurgent attacks (you know, the ones whose “momentum” we were supposed to have “interrupted” if not “reversed”) have spiked.
According to one report in The Wall Street Journal, the number of attacks by militants increased 11 percent in the last three months over the same period last year, bringing current numbers closer to summer 2010 levels, when fighting peaked. Yaroslav Trofimov writes that the roughly 110 attacks/day were the most in a June (the beginning of the so-called “fighting season”) since Operation Enduring Freedom began. The attacks — which include militant small arms fire, rocket attacks, and Improvised Explosive Devices set off as roadside bombs — have brought with them a new surge of wounded, including a rise in lifelong injuries like amputations, according to Huffington Post military writer David Wood. This is exactly what happened during the spikes in violence in 2010 and throughout the year in 2011, as militants honed the deadly precision of the IED.
From Wood’s report:
Three times a week, medical evacuation aircraft land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, bearing the wounded on stretchers and swathed in bandages and tubes, toward the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and other medical facilities. On one flight last week was a soldier whose feet were smashed when his vehicle hit an IED; the blast killed his buddy in the same vehicle. With him came a warrior who stayed conscious when an IED blast tore off both legs (it hurt “like hell,” he said later), a sergeant who took a bullet in his left thigh that snapped his femur, and a soldier with multiple fragmentation wounds and fractures who was the sole survivor in an IED strike that killed six U.S. troops, according to notes taken by a medical officer at Andrews.
It is difficult to get a precise accounting of amputations, as various military units collect data differently (a casualty transported by medevac with all limbs intact may have a badly shattered leg amputated minutes or hours later, for instance). But according to an authoritative database maintained by the Extremity Trauma and Amputation Center of Excellence at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, major limb amputations among U.S. troops have almost tripled from earlier this year. There were 16 major limb amputations in the first three months of the year, and 47 in April, May and June, according to Col. James R. Ficke, a medical doctor and chairman of orthopedics and rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
This follows a first quarter period in which monitors like the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office pointed to a significant drop in overall violence, and the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) claimed only five percent of the IED’s “hit their mark.” The organization credits better intelligence, detection, and awareness on the part of personnel (while JIEDDO has had billions to get this right, the success is encouraging). Indeed, the overall levels of fatalities are down year-over-year. But JIEDDO’s figures do not take into account the number of IEDs still being manufactured (mostly in Pakistan) and planted by insurgents to kill NATO and Afghan army forces and they neglect other types of attacks. And, despite JIEDDO’s upbeat report, NATO has confirmed that enemy attacks are on the rise.
The American military argues that this is not an indication of the Taliban’s strength, attributing the rise to other factors, like the shortened poppy growing season, better incident reporting, or in the case of the last two years, aggressive counterinsurgency efforts by NATO and the Afghan forces. Unfortunately, this is the usual retort when the news on the ground blasts rosy congressional testimonies about reversing momentum out of the water. Then there are the DoD’s own news releases. Ten soldiers and Marines dead in the last five days alone, with bleak announcements such as this:
The Department of Defense announced today the death of two soldiers who were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. They died July 26 in Khakrez, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when they encountered an enemy improvised explosive device. These soldiers were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
I’ve been traveling on vacation, up through Massachusetts and Maine and Quebec (Canada lost 158 soldiers before pulling out all the combat troops last summer) and now in upstate New York. Tourists love their old forts, their military ceremonies and rituals, the war museums, the history. They flock to this stuff. But when it comes to news about the current war, no one wants to talk about it. They’ve heard it all before.