The military has reduced the number of troops wounded or killed by homemade bombs in Afghanistan by 37% since August by improving its ability to find the explosives before they blow up.
About one-sixth of the bombs used by insurgents in January ended up wounding or killing troops compared with the one-quarter of such bombs that caused casualties in August, according to figures from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the Pentagon's agency for combating makeshift bombs.
In January, 215 IED attacks wounded or killed troops compared with 341 attacks that caused casualties in August. That dramatic reduction occurred even though the number of IEDs planted has remained at between 1,300 and 1,500 a month during that time.
"IEDs are still responsible for the greatest number of our casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are making progress against the enemy's effective use of them," Lt. Gen. Michael Oates told USA TODAY.
In 2010, IEDs wounded or killed 7,800 troops in the U.S.-led coalition, according to data released to USA TODAY. That accounts for nearly half of all casualties.
Oates cited some factors that have eroded the effectiveness of the homemade bombs:
•Increasing the number of teams that scour roads for IEDs from 12 in 2009 to 75 today.
•Encouraging the 30,000 servicemembers ordered to Afghanistan last year by President Obama to mix with Afghan civilians, earn their trust and receive tips on where bombs have been planted.
•Expanding use of planes, drones and balloons with cameras and other sensors to spy on insurgents and detect where they have planted bombs. From Jan. 30 through Feb. 5, for example, the Air Force flew 371 surveillance missions.
"They have darkened the skies in Afghanistan with airplanes looking for these guys," Pike said.
Despite the gains, Oates said he expects fighting to be "vigorous" this spring, when weather improves. Insurgents will still plant 1,300 to 1,500 bombs per month, he said.
"The enemy has a will to win and the capability," Oates said. "And he has a very good chance to inflict casualties on us."
Troops on foot patrol remain particularly vulnerable, he said. There has been a "significant spike" in the number of those soldiers and Marines who step on bombs in the past year.
"You have a homemade explosive planted in the ground, it produces a lot of natural shrapnel," Oates said. "It's dirty, so you get soil and rocks that penetrate deep into tissue. They tend not to kill, but to blow off arms and legs."