US War Against IED’s in Afghanistan a Strategic Failure

I figure that if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been victories, we would have seen some victory parades, or at least some triumphalism like a four-color insert in Pravda or something. Also too some “leaders” in the political class taking credit for starting them instead of ending them. But no.* So here’s one reason why we lost. Paul Jay of the Real News Network interviews Gareth Porter, a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst.

More at The Real News

This exchange caught my eye:

PORTER: Yes. There is a third—and in some ways, I think, most important of all—strategic defeat that the United States and NATO command and the Pentagon have suffered in the Afghan War in the last two years, and that is a strategic defeat in the IED war, that is, the war over improvised explosive devices planted by the Taliban forces, essentially in order to injure or kill U.S.-NATO troops. And this is clearly a strategically key part of the entire war, because when the U.S. troop surge took place in 2009, the commander in Kabul, McChrystal, and the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, both determined that they would do things to, essentially, reduce the damage that the Taliban were able to do through these IED explosions to U.S. and NATO troops, primarily to U.S. troops. …

Well, now, two years later, with all of that high-tech gadgetry having been transferred to Afghanistan—at one point the skies were filled with blimps who were taking photographs from the sky of everything on the ground, wherever they felt there might be a possibility of IEDs being laid and various other things being introduced into the war—it’s clear that the U.S. counter-IED war has failed completely, because in 2011 the number of people who were killed by the IEDs was more than twice the number in 2010. …

And we know that a large part, a significant part of the injuries had been amputation—have involved amputation of limbs. There has been a huge increase in the number of U.S. and NATO troops who have lost limbs, and in many cases multiple limbs, to IEDs. So the toll of this war, this IED war, on U.S. forces has been enormous, and it has not been reported in any meaningful way.

But believe me, the U.S. military knows very well what the toll has been. And one of the things that has happened in the past year is that the U.S. has transferred roughly 4,000 to 5,000 troops from Helmand Province, which is where 45 percent—Helmand and Kandahar, where 45 percent of the IEDs have been going off. And part of the reason, no doubt, is to relieve the pressure on U.S. troops in that part of Afghanistan where they’re taking tremendous casualties from dismounted patrols which stepped on IEDs.

So I think that the U.S. again has suffered a tremendous strategic defeat. It has been unable to reduce the number of bombs, unable to essentially destroy or attrit the networks that have been laying the bombs. And in so doing, it has allowed the Taliban to continue to carry out a critical part of this strategy, which is to impose very high casualties on U.S.-NATO forces.

Of course, one of the consequences of being an imperial power is that every barfly on every barstool in every bar with a TV has an opinion about which class of faraway brown people we should be blowing to red mist, and how we should do that. In this case, the question the imperial barflies might be asking themselves would involve the ROI on an IED (for the Taliban) as opposed to the ROI on the blimps, high tech weaponry, expensively trained soldiers, and the entire supply chain needed to keep blundering about in the graveyard of empires (for “us”).**

And having asked themselves that question, the imperial barflies might Google “Millennium Challenge” and ask themselves about ROI in other contexts.

CIVILIAN: How will we know the aircraft carrier is obsolete?

ADMIRAL: When it fails in war.

Supply chain issues are everywhere, aren’t they? And with that gnomic comment…

NOTE * One of the more hilarious aspects of the election is that our famously free press has allowed Obama to get away with claiming he ended the Iraq war, when he did so on Bush’s timetable, which he in fact sought to lengthen. You got to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Also too, Iraq and Afghanistan might not have been victories, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t successes. After all, those billions of dollars of cash that grew legs and walked off mean that some people did very well out of the war, thank you very much.

NOTE ** Of course, considered solely from the standpoint of and American arms manufacturer like Lockheed or a contractor like Lockheed, the (current) war is simply a self-licking ice cream cone. Comparative ROI between combatants is not a concern. It would be nice if the imperial barflies arrived at such a level of cynicism, or realism, but it may be that an outright and undeniable loss of materiel or territory will be required to for that to happen, and not merely a slow trickle of deaths, suicides, and maimings for home-town boys and girls who are, after all, heroes, and none of whose parents are rich.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. amateur socialist

    Well done Lambert. I especially appreciate how you tied the IED failure into the Millenium Challenge carrier effectiveness question, perhaps a more permanently insane self licking ice cream cone.

  2. JohnL

    Hence drones. Soon all ground troops will be withdrawn and the whole middle east/southwest asia will become a drone zone. In which case, why do we need an army, navy, marines, or even air force as many of them are flown by the CIA.

    Just as IEDs disrupted humvees, and shore to ship missiles disrupted aircraft carriers, what will disrupt drones?

    US has not won a major war since they’ve been televised. If you can’t handle casualties, you’re going to lose.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Hence drones, yes. The “revolution in military affairs” really did happen.

      But remember that the blimps and the drones had the objective, at least in narrrow military terms, of killing enemies. And they were’t very good at that, or at least they were better at terrorizing entire populations.

      Remember also that drones are as expensive as aircraft because they require a lot of support. The price point will drop, but despite the marketing, AFAIK they are still very, very pricey.

      The moral being that if “the war comes home,” the old-school military, boots on the ground-style, is probably used up (else they’d be aiming it at Iran), and the technology solutions will probably be as effective as they were in Afghanistan.

      1. JohnL

        Agreed that IEDs are the last nail in the coffin of boots on the ground. How long before China, Russia, Iran have drones too, or an effective anti-drone technology? Technological advantages are short lived and vulnerable.

        1. abprosper

          IED’s are drones, just very low tech ones. So in some ways the whole thing is a drone war.

          The real revolution in warfare, gods help us all is when it becomes cheap enough to reach across oceans for smaller powers.

          Right now, the oceans provide a huge logistic edge but if a hostile power could reach out and bring the war to CONUS , especially with the internal weaknesses so many Western countries have, well that will be a new thing.

          Ironically future war may end up reverting to something akin to iron age cattle raiding, a drone hit here, retaliation there but no one will be able to afford or dare use (nuclear proliferation is a bummer) large armed forces.

      2. Zog

        When the price point drops far enough the Taliban will have them too, practically everybody else already has. IEDs will become redundant when you can field a suitcase full of flying auto-guiding hand grenades for the same price.

      3. propertius

        Remember also that drones are as expensive as aircraft because they require a lot of support.

        That’s hard to believe. The purchase price for a Predator is a little over $4 million. The purchase price for an F35 is about $130 million. They both require ground crews and maintenance – I’m skeptical that it costs $126 million more to keep a Predator flying than an F35.

        1. Jim S

          A more apt comparison for the F35 would be the X-47B. To date the US has spent over $800M on the program, and the unit costs will probably be upwards of $50M.

          A Predator is more comparable in capability to an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, unit cost of $10M. A brief search indicates the OH-58 costs around $1000/flying hour versus $1300/flying hour for a Predator.

      4. Jim S

        “Hence drones, yes.” Well, a $4M drone is apparently less effective a deterrent to IED planting than a $50K Cessna, so I have to disagree with that. As far as killing efficacy, drones are highly effective because the target can’t see it coming to know to hide, most times. Only, you can’t be deterred by something you don’t know is watching you. People deter crime; weapons don’t. The fact that for some bomb planters, every day is bring-your-kids-to-work day is a separate issue.

        While the Revolution in Military Affairs is indeed real, it’s been eclipsed and dwarfed by the following Revolution in Military Procurement (and the accompanying Death of Basic Fiscal Literacy in the Armed Forces). In a culture where you fix problems by throwing money at them, it’s hard to know what’s really effective. So I’m skeptical of technological solutions, but I also hesitate to write off “boots on the ground”.

  3. mac

    When in both Iraq and Afghanistan we failed to understand the things that won WWII we lost.
    Carpet bomb the places until NOTHING even wiggles in the sand!!
    Check out Dresden in Germany and Hiroshima in Japan, the objective of war is to destroy folks will to fight.

    1. Zog

      From blood for oil to genocide for oil, or was it a pipeline? Women’s rights?

      Hitler thought that was a great idea too. The German officers that survived long enough to face the gallows indicated some regret about the strategy considering the response.

      1. mac

        My point has nothing to do with oil or peanuts, it is just a statement about how to win a war and that the main point of military action is to destroy the enemies will to fight.

        1. Zog

          Wish someone would carpet bomb wherever it is where you live so you can see how it affects your will to fight. Americans are monsters. Can’t wait until their country is an impoverished ruin.

        2. Procopius

          I hate to be the grammar police, but I’m pretty sure you mean, “…the enemy’s will to fight.” Otherwise I have no idea what you are trying to say.

          You’ve never been in the Army, have you? And I would say you haven’t read any military history, either. Where did you get your idea of World War II, from your grandfather? Or maybey you’re old enough that you heard about it from your father or an uncle. Anyway, I can tell that you have no idea about the difference between “war” and “the global war on terror.”

          There was a comment back in 2003 that I liked. “There are some people in this world who want to kill us, so of course we have to kill them. But sumetimes we make a mistake, or there’s an accident, and we kill someone who didn’t want to kill us. And then all their friends and relatives want to kill us.”

          War was the wrong metaphor, but was chosen because it is providing good cover for The Oligarchy to advance their plan. We should have relied on a policing metaphor, because we do not have enough soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, to take on even the population of the Muslim countries. The people responsible for 9/11 were a couple of dozen fanatics. They live in the middle of several million other people who do not like us very much but did not attack us. Going out of our way to make active enemies of them is not a good way to improve the security of the United States.

      2. mac

        Why a war is fought is political, the military is what I refer to. If the Political group decides to fight the military should fight to win, not fight to advance political ideas. Why we fight is not an issue how is!

    2. TK21

      I thought it was the other way around. America tried for the best pinpoint accuracy it could achieve while the Axis used frightening but clumsy weapons like the V-2, which caused a lot of pain but little harm to the Allied war effort. Nuclear weapons capped off the war but sure didn’t allow us to get to the brink of victory in the first place. And if we had utterly cratered Germany it wouldn’t have provided much of a bulwark against the USSR in decades following.

    3. Sheer Insanity

      Yeah, carpet bombing a nebulous enemy in terrain that is highly resistant to such tactics would be the way to “win” a war in which we can’t even concretely define what the term “winning” means in the first place alright. Victors always imagine they’re fighting their last war instead of the one they’re actually in, which makes it increasingly likely that their next one will be their last. Unless they possess virtually unlimited economic power (hegemony), complete power of “free press” propaganda, and a totally bamboozled and clueless population that seems to love being fed into a meat grinder for “god and country.” Like the Soviets and all the rest before us, we’re now learning one of history’s most oft repeated and unerringly lessons: Afghanistan is where unwitting empires go to have their grand delusions of empire “adjusted.” Simple, common people with a common cause and nothing to lose win out over vainglorious delusional thinking – and yes, even 21st century hi-tech! – EVERY TIME!

      Carpet bombing! Vietnam and Cambodia ring a bell?

  4. Synopticist

    Drones can only operate when you have complete air supremamcy. So no taliban drones. Hamas flew one over Isaeli airspace a few weeks back, it lasted a couple of minutes.

    IEDs are just mines with a coms device attached. Mines were the biggest threat to US soldiers in Vietnam. They don’t represent a big change in warfare, unlike drones and the coming robot advances.

  5. Michael Fiorillo

    “… those billions of dollars of cash that grew legs and walked off…”

    Ah yes, the image persists of forklifts moving pallets of shrink-wrapped $100 bills through filled warehouses… and all of it “evaporating.”

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, at least they’re based in Baltimore, and not on K Street. Sigh. Anyhow, hopefully the interviews and the transcripts speak for themselves (see under Genetic Fallacy).

  6. Middle Seaman

    Once the US leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over. That is obvious now and was obvious 10 years ago. One doesn’t win against a guerrilla war. Even Hitler didn’t with the utmost brutally used.

    Porter’s report is problematic. Why would the US use blimps when spy satellites have a much better visibility? Porter make speculations appear as facts. US soldiers moved from Helman province due to IEDs. That’s a assumption not a fact. Porter has no solid numbers. He mentions several thousand amputees, but his job is not generalities.

    1. Beppo

      Blimps can loiter, satellites swoop past at high speed. Hole digging man spotted, take him out, alpha bravo charlie delta.

  7. citalopram

    It’s a brilliant strategy on the part of the Taliban. They’ve spent very little money in wounding our troops and waging a textbook guerilla campaign against the fascist Americans.

    Hats off to the Afghan warriors. Tough as nails.

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorHAL

      There was a newspaper clipping I saw, it described a suicide bomber who blew up himself and a score of other people at the British Embassy in Kabul.
      It was dated July 1841.
      What a colossal joke it is to think that aircraft carriers, multi-million dollar jets, or supersmart drones are somehow useful against this kind of enemy.
      Now the US just hides in their forts to lessen IED deaths, and even then they get overrun by determined goat herders protecting their homeland from invaders (Camp Bastion).
      Who’s running this farce? It’s not funny any more.

  8. Minor Heretic

    There’s a kind of obvious point I read about in John Keegan’s excellent book “The Face of Battle.” The way to win a battle is to get the enemy in your killing zone while staying out of his killing zone. The use of archers at Agincourt was one of his examples. The French had to traverse a dense killing zone to reach the English line and suffered unsupportable attrition and loss of maneuverability. (Note to military history buffs: yes, there were many other factors.)

    IEDs keep our troops in the Taliban killing zone while they aren’t in ours. Or, to be more accurate, it is much easier and cheaper for them to keep us there than for us to get and keep them there.

    In fact, the mere threat of IEDs places a security maintenance handicap on our military. We don’t have true freedom of movement. It is the epitome of asymmetrical warfare, with the Taliban directing the flow of events. Horrible to watch, like a minor league Somme.

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