The U.S. military is on a path toward significantly fewer battlefield deaths in Afghanistan this year because it has become better at detecting the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops: the improvised explosive device (IED).
With the 2009 surge forces leaving the country and Afghan troops preparing to take over more of the fighting, U.S. forces are averaging about 23 fatalities each month. That number would bring the death toll to about 276 this year, compared with 317 in 2009, 499 in 2010 and 418 last year, according to statistics compiled by icasualties.org.
"The threat is still there, no doubt about that, but there have been some improvements in detection and plenty of lessons learned," said Joe Kasper, spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a House Armed Services Committee member.
The Pentagon has spent more than $200 million a year developing and deploying devices to detect roadside bombs as they are being put into place or when they lie buried ahead of U.S. foot patrols and convoys. Its Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), which is scheduled to receive $217 million in fiscal 2013, also has put more reliance on dogs to sniff out different types of IEDs.
Military statistics indicate that the U.S. is on a trend for about 120 IED deaths this year, compared with 252 last year and 368 in 2010.
"The rate of incidents is still high, but the fatalities are down considerably," said Mr. Kasper.
Mr. Hunter, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has pushed JIEDDO to do a better job of keeping pace with how the Taliban change tactics and bomb components.
Mr. Hunter this month won passage of an amendment to the fiscal 2013 Pentagon budget bill that would require JIEDDO to become more involved in stopping agricultural materials made in Pakistan from falling into the hands of bomb makers in Afghanistan.
"Enemy tactics have become less sophisticated, if anything," Mr. Kasper said. "Basic materials are being utilized in place of more-complicated systems. Take pesticides, for example, and their origin in Pakistan."
Pakistan has refused to stop the movement of calcium ammonium nitrate, the main bomb precursor used by the Taliban.
"We have not seen the level of cooperation or action that we have requested or desired," Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told Congress in March.
NATO command statistics in Kabul show that what are called enemy-initiated attacks dropped for the first time since 2008, by 10 percent in the fall of 2011 and first part of this year.
IED attacks were down 10 percent in April at just under 400, compared with the same month last year. The military detected and cleared more than 200 bombs before they exploded.
In all, IED attacks fell 20 percent the past three months, compared with the same period last year.
Gen. Allen credited JIEDDO for developing protective body armor and detection systems.
"All of these have contributed to reducing the vulnerability of our troops and reducing the casualties," he said. "But the casualties are still too high."
As the surge forces leave villages this summer, a big challenge for NATO is to watch how the Taliban react and whether they step up IED attacks.
"The Taliban have been unambiguous in that they intend to take advantage of the removal of the surge forces, and so we have planned for that," Gen. Allen said Sunday. "If we detect that there is, in fact, a Taliban presence beginning to surge in behind our forces, we have forces that are available that we intend to put against that to prevent that from happening.
Bill Roggio, who edits the Long War Journal for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said a decrease in fatalities does not always tell the full story.
"Attacks are down overall nationwide and Afghan forces are being pushed to the fore as well, so this may also factor in to the lower numbers of U.S. deaths," he said. "Casualties are not the best way to judge the strength or weakness of an insurgency."
The U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a surge peak of 100,000. By the end of September, another 23,000 are scheduled to exit. Members of the Obama administration are debating the size of the force for 2013. Most U.S. combat forces are expected to leave in 2014.
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