ARLINGTON, Va. — Halfway through this month, U.S. and coalition deaths in Afghanistan have already equaled record highs for operations there, with more than half of the casualties coming from improvised explosive devices.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell acknowledged that fatalities are continuing “at an alarming rate” and that more must be done to protect troops from roadside bombs and other indirect attacks.
“We’ve got to tackle this threat from basically 360 degrees,” he said. “We’ve got to get them from the air. We’ve got to monitor the roads. We’ve got to watch patterns of life for these IED networks. We’ve got to provide force-protection measures that will keep our troops safe if they do encounter them. And we’ve got to increase our intelligence on the ground to ultimately dismantle these groups.”
The Associated Press reported that so far this month, 24 U.S. and at least 47 international coalition servicemembers have died in Afghanistan. That total matches the previous record high for U.S. deaths, set in June and August last year, and passes the previous total for NATO deaths.
Pentagon casualty notices show more than half of U.S. deaths this month were caused by IEDs.
U.S. officials have spent billions researching ways to thwart IEDs in Iraq, but are seeing limited results from that research in Afghanistan.
The Defense Department created a special organization dedicated solely to the task, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which spent more than $3 billion and allocated another $4 billion in fiscal 2008.
Since 2006, the Pentagon has bought 10,000 mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles with distinctive V-shaped hulls that have proved effective in deflecting ground blasts and protecting troops inside.
Three thousand MRAPs already have been sent to Afghanistan, Morrell said, with more on the way.
But MRAPs have limited use in Afghanistan’s off-road terrain. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly, former commander Multi-National Force-West in Iraq, in February called the MRAP “a nearly useless vehicle unless you’re on a hard surface road.”
In March, Army and Marine Corps officials asked Congress to fund a new, lighter version for Afghanistan.
But members worried fighting would start before the equipment was ready.
The Pentagon commissioned the Oshkosh Corp. on June 30 to build 2,244 copies of a highly-anticipated all-terrain version at a cost of $1.1 billion.
At that time, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan told Stars and Stripes the Oshkosh vehicles were expected to reach Afghanistan in October.
Two days later, Operation Khanjar, a Marine-led offensive into Helmand Province, began.
Gates anticipated U.S. troops would face increased IED attacks when major fighting renewed, Morrell said.
But the secretary felt the region had to be more secure in time for the country’s elections next month.
The timeline forced their hand.
“Keep in mind the context here. … The security situation, particularly in the south, was not conducive for holding free and fair and safe elections in August. Everybody agreed we had to change that dynamic on the ground, and the only way to do it was to get forces there and get them there fast.
“That said, the secretary long ago knew that the IED threat was emerging and increasing in Afghanistan, and that’s why he pushed his people to make sure that we were moving MRAPs to Afghanistan,” Morrell said.
The U.S. has shifted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets from Iraq to Afghanistan to conduct a wider anti-IED effort.
“But more are needed,” Morrell said.