If the success or failure of the Afghan military “surge” rests on whether the U.S can bring down the level of violence and protect the civilian population from the Taliban – a metric that the now fading COINdinistas had once insisted could be achieved with the right strategy — then two new statistics to emerge this week don’t bode well for the prospects of the nearly 2-year-old counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan.
First, more of our soldiers today are coming home this year with amputations than in the previous year, according reports coming out of the Defense Health Board this week. According to The Washington Post, which was apparently the only mainstream news outlet to cover the board’s meeting in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, the steepest increase in lost limbs among soldiers and Marines occurred in the last four months.
The Marines, who make up 20 percent of the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, were especially hard hit. Of the 66 wounded severely enough to be evacuated overseas in October, one-third lost a limb.
In the first seven years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, about 6 percent of seriously wounded soldiers underwent amputation.
Wounds to the genitals and lower urinary tract – known as genitourinary injuries – accounted for 11 percent of wounds over the last seven months of 2010, up from 4 percent in the previous 17 months, according to data presented by John B. Holcomb, a trauma surgeon and retired Army colonel.
The constellation of leg-and-genital wounds are in large part the consequence of stepping on improvised explosive devices – homemade mines – and are known as “dismounted IED injuries.”
The data regarding the increased amputations were already reported in Friday’s WaPo, but apparently the fact they spiked in the last few months only came out in the meeting. Who knows if that point would’ve ever seen the light of day if a reporter hadn’t been there. A source close to the board told me that media rarely show up to cover the DHB, which is a pity, because its members, which include both civilian and retired military doctors and scientists, probably know more about the “big picture” regarding the health and welfare of our troops in the battlefield than anyone else and tend to talk candidly among themselves about conditions there.
The data was presented Tuesday by John B. Holcomb, a trauma surgeon and retired Army colonel. As a former head of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, he said he had heard of “unwritten pacts among young Marines that if they get their legs and genitals blown off they won’t put tourniquets on but will let each other die on the battlefield.”
New DHB member Richard Carmona, a former U.S Surgeon General under Bush, apparently didn’t get the memo about keeping his emotional responses in check. The Vietnam veteran called the new statistics “very disturbing,” and then asked, “What is the endgame here? Is the sacrifice we are asking of our young men and women worth the potential return? I have questions about that now.”
He should definitely have questions, considering that Gen. David Petraeus, Lt. Gen. William “svengali” Caldwell and others have been all over the press in recent weeks talking about how promising it looks in Afghanistan — the Taliban’s “halted momentum,” and all that.
Meanwhile, the other big news today is that civilian deaths in Afghanistan are up, too.
According to a new U.N report, civilian deaths as a result of war violence rose 15 percent from the year before in Afghanistan (some of the highest levels since the war began in 2001). More than two-thirds of those deaths — 2,777 — were caused by insurgents (up 28 percent) and 440 were caused by Afghan Army/NATO forces (down 25 percent*). While the Taliban is responsible for most civilian deaths, the U.S has made “protecting the population” a major strategic goal for winning over the Afghan people, legitimizing the Karzai government and draining the Taliban of its authority. Instead, it’s been publicly blamed and repudiated by Afghans for a number of civilian bombing deaths, the most recent being nine Afghan boys killed “by accident” in a U.S air strike in Kunar province.
This week, President Karzai rejected an apology from Petraeus for the killings, and later accepted another attempt at apology from Sec. Def. Bob Gates. It didn’t help that Petraeus’ apology came a week after he suggested that the young victims of another NATO attack in Kunar had gotten their burn marks not from the strike, but from their parents, who might have hurt the kids themselves in disciplinary actions. It didn’t go over so well, especially since Afghan authorities say 65 people were killed, many of them women and children. NATO has now admitted that some civilians may have been hurt, but insists the operation had targeted insurgents.
Again, my mind goes back to the COINdinistas, many of whom remain delusional about the direction of the war, and others who might be furiously back-peddling or remolding themselves as we speak. In June 2009, Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was published by the pro-COIN Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In it, fellow Andrew Exum, CNAS CEO Nathaniel Fick, David Kilcullen and Ahmed Humayun wrote this (emphasis mine):
“To be sure, violence will rise in Afghanistan over the next year — no matter what the United States and its allies do. What matters, though, is who is dying. And here a particular lesson may be directly imported from the U.S. experience in Iraq. In 2007, during the Baghdad security operations commonly referred to as “the surge,” U.S. casualties actually increased sharply. What U.S. planners were looking for, however, was not a drop in U.S. casualties — or even a drop in Iraqi security force casualties — but a drop in Iraqi civilian casualties. In the same way, U.S. and allied operations in Afghanistan must be focused on protecting the population even at the expense of allied casualties.”
Afghan civilian casualties, whether at the hands of the coalition, the Taliban, or the Afghan government, will be the most telling measure of progress.
Well, violence is up, and deaths among NATO and its allies are up. And so are civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, while the CNAS team said in June 2009 that NATO/Afghan soldier deaths were expected to rise, they also claimed that another metric of success would be an eventual flattening of IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) incidents.
Another indicator of cooperation (with local Afghans) is the number of roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) that are found and cleared versus exploded. IED numbers have risen sharply in Afghanistan since 2006 (though numbers are still low, and IEDs still unsophisticated, compared to Iraq). The coalition should expect an increase in numbers again this year. However, a rise in the proportion of IEDs being found and defused (especially when discovered thanks to tips from the local population) indicates that locals have a good working relationship with local military units — a sign of progress.
Despite all his spin to the contrary, Petraeus cannot hide the fact that late last year, IED deaths among our own soldiers were up, not down. A chart issued within its own November progress report to Congress last November shows that, and it shows that the found and cleared IEDs had not risen above the attacks in most areas of the country.
Plus, metric or no metric, the recent data indicating serious injuries of U.S soldiers this late in the game — while every other assessment outside the military bubble says the Taliban are making more gains not less — should leave any thinking person at this point to question, “is it really worth it?”
Not sure what it will take before the COINdinistas admit events on the ground are falling short of their own metrics. Sounds like a good follow-up to “Triage,” but will anyone there have the guts to write it?
Photo credit: Todd Pitman/AP
* I wrote in an earlier version of this post that civilian deaths by NATO/Afghan soldiers was “up 25 percent.” Those casualties are actually “down 25 percent.” I regret the error.