By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 10:50 PM
The number of U.S. troops killed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan soared by 60 percent last year, while the number of those wounded almost tripled, new U.S. military statistics show.
All told, 268 U.S. troops were killed by the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in 2010, about as many as in the three previous years combined, according to the figures, obtained by The Washington Post. More than 3,360 troops were injured, an increase of 178 percent over the year before.
Military officials said an increase in attacks was expected, given the surge in U.S. and NATO troops, as well as the intensified combat. Even so, the spike comes despite a fresh wave of war-zone countermeasures, including mine-clearing machines, fertilizer-sniffing dogs and blimps with sophisticated spy cameras.
The U.S. military has struggled for years to find an antidote to the homemade explosives. IEDs - concocted primarily of fertilizer and lacking metal or electronic parts that would make them easier to detect - are the largest single cause of casualties for U.S. troops, by a wide margin.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates, the director of a Pentagon agency dedicated to combating the bombs, noted that the percentage of IED attacks that have inflicted casualties - on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces, as well as Afghan civilians - has actually declined in recent months, from 25 percent last summer to 16 percent in December, according to U.S. military statistics.
"My main concern is driving these effective attacks down," he said. "We're enjoying success there, and I do believe we're going to continue to reduce [the enemy's] effectiveness."
Oates and other military officials have emphasized figures showing that IEDs killed fewer troops in the NATO-led coalition last year than in 2009 - a slight decline, from 447 to 430.
A further examination of those numbers, however, shows that casualty rates among U.S. troops have skyrocketed as they have taken over responsibility from European allies for fighting in southern Afghanistan, where resistance from insurgents has been most fierce. Meanwhile, casualty rates among allies have dropped.
Afghan insurgents planted 14,661 IEDs last year, a 62 percent increase over 2009 and more than three times as many as the year before.
Army Col. George B. Shuplinkov, chief of counter-IED programs for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said he is guardedly optimistic that the number of bombs has crested, after reaching a "high-water mark" last summer.
"I think this [past] year we stopped the momentum," he said in a telephone interview. "We will know next spring. If it starts spiking back up in May or June, we'll have to reassess."
Oates predicted that the overall number of bomb attacks will not increase significantly this year. But he said it is unrealistic to expect the military to eliminate the threat as long as the Afghan insurgency persists.
"The narrative has been that we're losing the IED fight in Afghanistan, and that's not accurate," he said. "The whole idea isn't to destroy the network. That's maybe impossible. It's to disrupt them."
The bomb attacks have risen steadily since 2005, when the Taliban began copying tactics used by insurgents in Iraq.
The Pentagon created Oates's agency, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), in 2006 to coordinate efforts among the armed services. With an annual budget of about $3.5 billion, it is supposed to speed the deployment of counter-IED programs to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Critics - including members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office and some military officers - have said that JIEDDO in the past moved too slowly and wasted money on unproved technologies. Such concerns took on new urgency in December 2009, when President Obama announced an expansion of the Afghan war and deployed 30,000 additional troops.
Around the same time, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates created a separate high-level task force - led by Marine Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton Jr. and Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer - to rush even more counter-IED equipment to Afghanistan to coincide with the troop increase.
One result has been a blanketing of the Afghan skies with blimps.
The white helium-filled airships, also known as aerostats, are outfitted with spy cameras that can track movements as they hover 2,000 feet above ground. The U.S. and Israeli militaries have used them for years, but only a handful were operating in Afghanistan, primarily over Kabul, when the troop increase began.
Since then, the Pentagon has shipped 60 more to the war zone and expects to double that total this year. It also plans to equip the blimps with a new spy-camera technology, known as Wide-Area Airborne Surveillance, which is designed to focus multiple sensors on an entire village simultaneously.
Cameras now on the blimps have a range of 20 miles and can zoom in on people and locations, day or night. Video is transmitted to operators on the ground who steer the airships with joysticks.
"It just provides a level of situational awareness that otherwise wouldn't be there," Carter said in an interview. He said the blimps also provide a deterrent: They are easily visible to Afghans on the ground, who can never be sure whether they are being tracked.
Defense officials said they do not have data that can measure the blimps' effectiveness, although Carter said he has received anecdotal reports of airships catching insurgents burying IEDs.
Air Force Col. Scott Murray, who served as the U.S. military's chief of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance operations in Afghanistan until this month, said airborne spy cameras are more useful to detect patterns of movement that can provide information about how insurgent networks function.
In addition to the blimps, he said, the military is relying on a range of surveillance technologies to gather intelligence about bomb builders. The equipment includes high-flying Global Hawk drones as well as cameras mounted on a stick, which foot patrols can use to peer into culverts and under bridges.
The U.S. military has increased the number of teams that clear roadside bombs along highways and other routes, from about a dozen a year ago to 75 today. The teams are equipped with hand-held drones that are about the size of model airplanes and can look for bombs around corners or over hills.
Even with all the technology, military officials said the best method for detecting buried bombs has proved to be old-fashioned: a dog's nose.
The most common ingredient in Afghan IEDs is ammonium nitrate, which is used to make fertilizer. Dogs have a special talent for sniffing it out. As a result, the Army and Marines have sent about 450 explosives-detecting dogs to Afghanistan, boosting the size of the canine corps by 35 percent more than last year.
Under U.S. pressure, the Afghan government banned the possession of ammonium nitrate last spring. U.S. officials acknowledged, however, that the prohibition has had little effect, and that farmers and bomb builders alike continue to import the fertilizer from Pakistan.
Oates said that it is virtually impossible to intercept the fertilizer before it crosses the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. "The notion that we'll be able to block it is just nonsensical," he said.