After the MOAB, Afghanistan reverberates still

The U.S. says its massive bomb was the right tool for the right target, but Afghan officials argue Islamic State was already on the retreat

In this May 2004 photo, a group gathers around a GBU-43B, or massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) weapon, on display at the Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, Fla. U.S. forces in Afghanistan struck an Islamic State tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, April 13, 2017, with a GBU-43B, the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat by the U.S. military, Pentagon officials said. (Mark Kulaw/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP/CP)

In this May 2004 photo, a group gathers around a GBU-43B, or massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) weapon, on display at the Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, Fla. (Mark Kulaw/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP/CP)

At 7:32pm on Thursday night local time, the U.S. military dropped the largest non-nuclear explosive device in its arsenal on an Islamic State target in eastern Afghanistan. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, says a lot about this 10-tonne monster: it is massive (9.1 meters in length); it is clearly ordnance, containing the explosive equivalent to 11 tonnes of TNT; and it blows up before it hits the ground, ensuring maximum damage.

But its nickname – the Mother of All Bombs – is perhaps more apt. It captures the symbolic power of dropping such a device, for the first time, in an active warzone. With a nickname like that, there’s little doubt that when it blows it will shake more than the foundations of its intended target.

Afghanistan is still reverberating more than day later. The MOAB, developed in 2002 and one of only about a dozen in existence, was used in the Achin district, near the Pakistani border. According Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it was used because, for the first time, the U.S. military identified a target which fit the purpose for which it was designed.

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“It was the right weapon against the right target,” he said at a press conference in Kabul on Friday afternoon local time. “And the right time to use it tactically.”

Achin has been nominally under Islamic State influence, if not outright control, since the summer of 2014 after former commanders from the Pakistani Taliban coalition pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and spilled over the border into Afghanistan. According to locals in the region, the militants overran dozens of villages, executing local leaders and forcing thousands to flee.

Since then, they have been steadily pushed back by the Afghan army, with U.S. support. They have also suffered losses at the hands of the Afghan Taliban, who consider the group a threat to their own nationalist cause.

From an initial force estimated in the thousands, the group had reportedly dwindled to around 600 to 700 fighters, according to U.S. officials, and had retreated to a cave and tunnel complex in a sparsely populated and mountainous area in Achin. There, they had dug in, using landmines and booby-traps to protect themselves from the advancing Afghan army, Nicholson said.

The MOAB, military experts say, was designed for just such a target. Unlike bunker-buster bombs, it does not require a specific target nor is it limited by winding tunnels which protect against the effects of fragmenting ordnance. Its primary advantage is its concussive force and a blast radius of 1.6km, which can collapse caves and tunnels spread over a large area.

But some Afghan officials are asking why such a massive bomb was needed at this point, when Islamic State was already on the retreat and nearing collapse in Afghanistan. In the days leading up to the MOAB’s use, the Afghan army had been warning local elders about the impending strikes, giving civilians enough time to escape. In the process, ISIS fighters were also tipped off, Naweed Shinwari, the mayor of Achin, told Maclean’s. Based on U.S. figures, only 36 ISIS fighters were killed in the blast while civilian casualties remain difficult to measure.

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Nicholson, however, emphasized that it was not ISIS fighters themselves who were the target, but the cave complex, which made rooting them out costly for the Afghan army.

Shinwari questioned his logic. “The loss of one cave complex does not mean anything to Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “The local terrain gives them many alternatives where they can retreat to and regroup. They have mountains, they have forests along the Pakistan border. We don’t mind that the Americans dropped the Mother of All Bombs. But it will not defeat Daesh. They need to continue fighting them until they are completely destroyed.”

The display of firepower, however, serves a clear political purpose at a time when U.S. president Donald Trump faces dwindling popularity at home and a growing number of crises abroad, from Syria to North Korea. After he ordered cruise missile strikes against the Syrian regime in retaliation for the alleged use of sarin gas on April 4, Trumps popularity spiked. The first time use of a MOAB, in a warzone most Americans have forgotten, is sure to project the kind of strongman image Trump craves.

But beyond the theatre, the MOAB proved only one thing: size really doesn’t matter.

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