How Petraeus’s Afghan ‘Surge’ Failed

In 2009, Gen. David Petraeus insisted on a troop “surge” in Afghanistan like the one he had overseen in Iraq. Yet, despite the positive PR for Petraeus and his “surges,” little was accomplished beyond putting more U.S. GIs within range of devastating IEDs, as Gareth Porter wrote for Inter Press Service.

By Gareth Porter

Although the surge of “insider attacks” on U.S.-NATO forces has dominated coverage of the war in Afghanistan in 2012, an even more important story has been quietly unfolding: the U.S. loss of the pivotal war of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to the Taliban.

Some news outlets have published stories this year suggesting that the U.S. military was making “progress” against the Taliban IED war, but those stories failed to provide the broader context for seasonal trends or had a narrow focus on U.S. fatalities. The bigger reality is that the U.S. troop surge could not reverse the very steep increase in IED attacks and attendant casualties that the Taliban began in 2009 and which continued through 2011.

Gen. David Petraeus, during his military career. (He is now director of the CIA.)

Over the 2009-11 period, the U.S. military suffered a total of 14,627 casualties, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Casualty Analysis System and iCasualties, a non-governmental organization tracking Iraq and Afghanistan war casualties from published sources.

Of that total, 8,680, or 59 percent, were from IED explosions, based on data provided by the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). And the proportion of all U.S. casualties caused by IEDs continued to increase from 56 percent in 2009 to 63 percent in 2011.

U.S. Pentagon and military leaders sought to gain control over the Taliban’s IED campaign with two contradictory approaches, both of which failed because they did not reflect the social and political realities in Afghanistan.

JIEDDO spent more than $18 billion on high-tech solutions aimed at detecting IEDs before they went off, including robots, and blimps with spy cameras. But as the technology helped the U.S.-NATO command discover more IEDs, the Taliban simply produced and planted even larger numbers of bombs to continue to increase the pressure of the IED war.

The counterinsurgency strategy devised by Gen. David Petraeus and implemented by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, on the other hand, held that the IED networks could be destroyed once the people turned away from the Taliban. They pushed thousands of U.S. troops out of their armored vehicles into patrols on foot in order to establish relationships with the local population.

The main effect of the strategy, however, was a major jump in the number of “catastrophic” injuries to U.S. troops from IEDs.

In his Aug. 30, 2009 “initial assessment”, McChrystal said the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) “cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk at least equally with the people.” In an interview with USA Today in July 2009, he argued that “the best way to defeat IEDs will be to defeat the Taliban’s hold on the people.” Once the people’s trust had been gained, he suggested, they would inform ISAF of the location of IEDs.

McChrystal argued that the Taliban were using “the psychological effects of IEDs and the coalition force’s preoccupation with force protection” to get the U.S.-NATO command to reinforce a “garrison posture and mentality”.

McChrystal ordered much more emphasis on more dismounted patrols by U.S. forces in fall 2009. The Taliban responded by increasing the number of IEDs targeting dismounted patrols from 71 in September 2009 to 228 by January 2010, according data compiled by JIEDDO.

That meant that the population had more knowledge of the location of IEDs, which should have resulted in a major increase in IEDs turned in by the population, according to the Petraeus counterinsurgency theory. But the data on IEDs shows that the opposite happened. In the first eight months of 2009, the average rate of turn-ins had been three percent, but from September 2009 to June 2010, the rate averaged 2.7 percent.

After Petraeus replaced McChrystal as ISAF commander in June 2010, he issued a directive calling for more dismounted patrols, especially in Helmand and Kandahar, where U.S. troops were trying to hold territory that the Taliban had controlled in previous years. In the next five months, the turn-in rate fell to less than one percent.

Meanwhile, the number of IED attacks on foot patrols causing casualties increased from 21 in October 2009 to an average of 40 in the March-December 2010 period, according to JIEDDO records. U.S. troops wounded by IEDs spiked to an average of 316 per month during that period, 2.5 times more than the average for the previous 10-month period.

The Taliban success in targeting troops on foot was the main reason U.S. casualties from IEDs increased from 1,211 wounded and 159 dead in 2009 to 3,366 wounded and 259 dead in 2010.

The damage from IEDs was far more serious, however, than even those figures suggest, because the injuries to dismounted patrols included far more “traumatic amputation” of limbs arms and legs blown off by bombs and other more severe wounds than had been seen in attacks on armored vehicles.

A June 2011 Army task force report described a new type of battle injury “Dismount Complex Blast Injury” defined as a combination of “traumatic amputation of at least one leg, a minimum of severe injury to another extremity, and pelvic, abdominal, or urogenital wounding.” The report confirmed that the number of triple limb amputations in 2010 alone had been twice the total in the previous eight years of war.

A study of 194 amputations in 2010 and the first three months of 2011 showed that most were suffered by Marine Corps troops, who were concentrated in Helmand province, and that 88 percent were the result of IED attacks on dismounted patrols, according to the report. In January 2011, the director of JIEDDO, Gen. John L. Oates, acknowledged that U.S. troops in Helmand and Kandahar had seen “an alarming increase in the number of troops losing one or two legs to IEDs.”

Much larger numbers of U.S. troops have suffered moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries from IED blasts mostly against armored vehicles. Statistics on the total number of limb amputations and traumatic brain injuries in Afghanistan were excised from the task force report.

In 2011, U.S. fatalities from IEDs fell to 204 from 259 in 2010, and overall fatalities fell from 499 to 418. But the number of IED injuries actually increased by 10 percent from 3,339 to 3,530, and the overall total of wounded in action was almost the same as in 2010, according to data from iCasualties. The total for wounded in the first eight months of 2012 are 10 percent less than the same period in 2011, whereas the number of dead is 29 percent below the previous year’s pace.

The reduction in wounded appears to reflect in part the transfer of thousands of U.S. troops from Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where a large proportion of the casualties have occurred, to eastern Afghanistan. The number of IED attacks on dismounted patrols in the mid-July 2011 to mid-July 2012 period was 25 percent less than the number in the same period a year earlier, according to JIEDDO.

The Pentagon was well aware by early 2011 that it wasn’t going to be able to accomplish what it had planned before and during the troop surge. In a telling comment to the Washington Post in January 2011, JIEDDO head Gen. Oates insisted that the idea that “we’re losing the IED fight in Afghanistan” was “not accurate,” because, “The whole idea isn’t to destroy the network. That’s maybe impossible.”

The aim, he explained, was now to “disrupt them” a move of the goalposts that avoided having to admit defeat in the IED war. And in an implicit admission that Petraeus’s push for even more dismounted patrols is no longer treated with reverence in the ISAF command, the August 2010 directive has been taken down from its website.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. [This article first appeared at Inter Press Service.]

7 comments for “How Petraeus’s Afghan ‘Surge’ Failed

  1. rosemerry
    October 14, 2012 at 13:41

    I found this a very enlightening article, really making anyone wonder what on earth we think we are in Afghanistan for? There was never any evidence that Afghans were involved in attacks on the USA, and the involvement of NATO was also never justified,since no “country” had attacked the USA.
    Now all this continuation of slaughter and destruction is proving completely counterproductive, while the JIEDDA billions are wasted and the US population loses jobs, schools, houses and most of its rights in the Homeland.

  2. incontinent reader
    October 11, 2012 at 17:05

    William R. Polk, one of our nation’s finest senior foreign policy experts on the Middle East and Central Asia- he has authored sophisticated but very readable books on Iraq and Iran that any serious student or lay person should read- wrote an article in the Atlantic in 2010, titled “Impressions of Afghanistan” with findings that should have provided enough food for thought and guidance for the U.S. to develop some sensible policies.  It is still one of the best analyses, and includes a summary of his discussions with Ambassador Eikenberry, and a most revealing and insightful interview with the Mullah Abdul Salam, the Finance Minister of the former Taliban government, who was captured, imprisoned in Guantanamo and later released.   (It can be accessed at: )
    Salam’s book, “My Life With the Taliban” is also an essential read; and there is more with Abdul Salam that one can follow up on YouTube. This is also relevant to understanding the flaws in Amnesty International’s cynical public relations campaign and narrative in apparent support of the courageous young girl Masala Yousufzai.

    One cannot assume that Clinton or Panetta- or, either party in Congress, or most especially, Romney’s neocon foreign policy team who did so much under GW Bush to damage our national interests- have much good to offer on the subject, given that our 2014 “withdrawal” seems intended to give us a permanent and overwhelming military presence. So, it is really the public that must inform itself and pressure the Administration to adjust its policies protecting our interests re: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to something much more attuned to the realities of the region and its peoples.

    Moreover, one hopes the business leaders of the energy and mining companies who have so influenced our foreign policy in the region, will better educate themselves and change their thinking about it. Otherwise, they may never have a chance to obtain valuable concessions or development and extraction rights they could otherwise obtain, if they continue to encourage and lobby for military solutions, given that such solutions have so devastated and alienated the peoples of the region and will continue to devastate our own economy. In this regard, they should know that electing Romney to achieve a military solution for them will only end in disaster for the U.S., and more than likely jeopardize their existing operations, as well as deny them future opportunities in the region. So, one hopes that the real power lurking in the shadows behind our political leaders, start to get it right, even if they do so only in their self interest.

  3. October 11, 2012 at 00:51

    It has been said before: “Afganistan is where old empires go to die.”

  4. bobzz
    October 10, 2012 at 13:39

    Most people who follow facts have difficulty believing Israel was behind 9/11. Yes we know about black flag operations; yes, we know about the Lavone affair; yes, we know about the USS Liberty. Prior black flag operations do not mean Israel was behind 9/11. The phone calls of the people on the last plane that went down described arab-like men as the perps. These same guys were seen by many before the attacks. Government officials were told about them but they refused to grant any credence to the reports, including those by a female FBI agent in Minnesota, I believe, so we got 9/11. More than fantasy is necessary to convince the rest of us Israel was behind 9/11. We need evidence.

    • F. G. Sanford
      October 10, 2012 at 15:38

      Yes, you are right. What is pitiful is that so much energy is wasted chasing this chimera of “who did 9/11”, when the subsequent crimes, which all speak for themselves, have been entirely ignored. Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who convicted Charles Manson, insists that he could get a conviction against George W. Bush for murder based on his own public statements and his memoir, if only a Grand Jury would bring charges. Any Grand Jury, anywhere in the United States would do the trick. Yes, there probably is a “cover-up”, but it’s to cover the asses of the incompetent fools that could have stopped it if they were doing their jobs. My observation is this: If a cabal of Neocons were demonstrated to have been implicated beyond any shadow of a doubt, NOBODY WOULD PROSECUTE! Our Justice Department doesn’t prosecute political or financial crimes anymore. Hasn’t anyone paid attention to the Commission on Assassinations? Or William Pepper’s lawsuit on behalf of the King Family? We are a nation of laws only in so far as it is politically convenient. So, let me say it again: THERE WILL BE NO PROSECUTION, even if y’all find the “smoking gun”. Give it up.

    • bobzz
      October 11, 2012 at 00:25

      Sorry Rehmat. You did not point to anything of substance; the actual Islamic perps died in the explosions. F. G. you are certainly right. We will not prosecute anyone for anything: bankers, CEOs that ignore inspectors, initiators of war, torture, nothing. But we’ll get the whistle blowers, lawyers powerful enough to write laws that morph bribes into contributions, etc., etc.

      • F. G. Sanford
        October 11, 2012 at 01:15

        I know our little exchange here is ‘off topic’, and I hate to beat a dead horse. But when will people wake up and realize that the “truth movement” is the best thing that ever happened to the previous administration? They couldn’t wish for a better smokescreen. Illegal wars of aggression, violations of international law, violations of the Geneva Conventions, torture, war crimes, probably suborning perjury, and God knows what else. Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld all write books bragging about what they did, and none of them can afford to leave the country for fear of apprehension by international authorities. But millions of dollars and millions of man-hours and dozens of books and hundreds of interviews are spent on…”whodunit”? For the love of Christ, they should quit masturbating, wake the f**k up and go after a crime that can be demonstrated to have means, motive, and opportunity. I would bet the neocons pump as much money as they secretly can into the “truth movement”. Those dogs can bark up that tree forever, and as long as they do, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are safe.

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