Pentagon Report: IED Casualties Surge in Afghanistan

Roadside bomb attacks are falling overall, except in Afghanistan.

The Afghan army conducts a controlled explosion during a military exercise on the outskirts of Kabul on April 30, 2014. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)
The Afghan army conducts a controlled explosion during a military exercise on the outskirts of Kabul on April 30, 2014. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Improvised explosive devices have plagued the U.S. military and its allies since the earliest days of the fight against terrorism, leading the Pentagon at one point to declare a “Manhattan Project” to battle the homemade bombs. Now, 16 years later, the number of IED deaths and injuries is falling overall among countries under U.S. Central Command’s authority, but not in Afghanistan.

Some 3,043 people were killed or injured by IEDs in 1,143 incidents in Afghanistan between the beginning of April and the end of June of this year, according to internal slides from the Department of Defense obtained by Foreign Policy.

The numbers represent an 8 percent increase in incidents and a 39 percent increase in deaths and injuries compared to the previous 90 days. It’s also a 17 percent increase the number of those killed or injured compared to the same period last year, even as the number of discrete incidents dropped 18 percent.

The report, produced by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO), the Pentagon’s bomb-fighting agency, is marked for Official Use Only but based on open source reporting.

JIDO usually releases unclassified statistics two to three months after the events, a spokeswoman for the organization told FP in an email. She did not immediately respond to a request for those statistics. 

Afghanistan was the only country in Central Command to see an increase in both incidents and casualties from IEDs compared to the previous 90 days, the JIDO report says. Iraq in the same period saw 15 percent fewer incidents and 30 percent fewer casualties than it had in the previous 90 days.

The question, of course, is why?

“In Afghanistan you have a stalemate that favors the insurgents,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

IEDs give insurgents “visibility, power, and influence,” he said.

The Taliban may be turning to IED attacks because they can’t control cities, Cordesman suggested. Whereas the Islamic State was able for a time to occupy cities in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban hasn’t had the same success at home, and IEDs present a dramatic show of force with a terrible human cost. “IEDs, particularly attacks on civilian populations, get them immense visibility,” he said. 

Insurgents “have found that one way of discouraging support for the Afghan government, of driving NGOs out of Afghanistan, of giving themselves constant visibility, is to have large attacks,” he said.

The IED uptick comes at a critical juncture. There were 11,000 troops in Afghanistan at the end of August, according to the Pentagon, and the Trump administration is expected to send an additional 4,000 as part of its new strategy in the region.

Adding troops to an already asymmetric war with a comparatively desperate enemy could increase roadside bomb attacks, said Paul Heslop, chief of program planning for the United Nations Mine Action Service, which devises responses to landmines around the world. “The insurgent groups will respond by using IEDs,” he said. “They know it works.”

Currently, the vast majority of those casualties are Afghans, including civilians. According to iCasulaties.org, an independent website that tracks casualties, there have been thirteen coalition casulaties in 2017; four of those casualties were from IEDs.

“More and more civilian casualties being caused by IEDs” over the past two or three years, Heslop said. Those IEDs come in the form of suicide bombers, car bombs, or landmine-like pressure-plate IEDs, he said.

Some 2,640 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year, 24 more people than in the same period in 2016, according to a recent report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which monitors civilian deaths and injuries in the country.

Standalone improvised explosive device attacks combined with suicide and complex attacks employing IEDs caused more than one-third of all Afghanistan civilian deaths and injuries during that period, the U.N. said.

In one attack alone, 92 people were killed and 491 injured when an IED truck detonated in Kabul on May 31, according to a UNAMA report. No organization claimed responsibility. Just one such event can dramatically alter the number of people killed or injured in a given country, said Heslop.

Though the Taliban’s targets are often claimed as explicitly governmental or military, they kill and maim thousands of civilians. The Taliban in the first half of the year claimed 10 suicide and complex attacks targeting a government body or armed group, but 318 civilians were killed or injured, according to the U.N.

The Taliban has even more indiscriminate methods when trying to hold territory, planting pressure-plate IEDs along roads, ostensibly targeting pro-government forces reentering the area. The landmine-like devices that killed a family in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar province in May accounted for nearly two-thirds of all IED civilian deaths and injuries in the first six months of the year, according to the U.N.

Pressure-plate IEDs, in a sense, should not even be considered improvised, Heslop argues, and using such weapons — which are really just mines — seems to violate the Taliban’s own edicts as well.

Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar “declared a fatwa on landmines in the ’90s,” Heslop said. “Twenty years on, we’re seeing, in the same country, a device that functions in basically the same way as a mine.”

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter. Twitter: @jkester
Jana Winter is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. Twitter: @janawinter

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