The use of the “mother of all bombs” on an underground network of Islamic State tunnels in a remote district in Afghanistan was a lot of hype with little long-term impact, according to many military analysts.
While breathless coverage of the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal gave the appearance that the Trump administration was taking assertive military action, the weapon itself fell far short of delivering a knockout blow to militants in the area.
Even if it had, military experts argue that the U.S. shouldn’t be focusing its energy on the relatively small threat of ISIS in Afghanistan. The Taliban are the real problem, rapidly retaking key districts that U.S. and British troops fought bloody battles to capture just years ago.
“The Islamic State is on the fringe. It’s a small problem in Afghanistan compared to al Qaida, the Taliban and other groups that operate there,” Bill Roggio, a military analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Thursday. “The U.S. military has, frankly, downplayed this problem with the Taliban.”
The GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast bomb, which had never been used in combat before U.S. forces dropped it April 13, is designed to detonate 6 feet above the ground, creating horizontal pressure that destroys targets on the surface and just below it. The U.S. military said it was the right weapon for the right target: a reinforced cave and tunnel complex used by entrenched ISIS fighters.
But there is little indication that the bomb dealt a devastating blow to the Islamic State in the area. The district government of Achin, the town in Nangarhar province where the bomb exploded, has said that at least 90 fighters died in the blast.
But the U.S. military has made no independent damage assessment, and the area is still an active combat zone. The U.S. military has restricted access to the site, turning away reporters and independent investigators.
Gunfire was audible in the background of a video from local Afghan police posted this week that showed the rubble left behind by the bombing, and a BBC reporter who was able to access the site reported that fighting continues close to where the bomb hit. U.S. planes, the reporter said, continue to strike around the site, suggesting that even after the powerful blast Islamic State militants remain in control of the area.
Two U.S. military service members were killed in an anti-ISIS operation Wednesday night in the district where the bomb was dropped, and a third was wounded in action.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, has offered tough rhetoric on the Islamic State. The massive bomb was “sending a very clear message to ISIS . . . if they come here to Afghanistan, they will be destroyed,” he told a news conference in Kabul on Monday.
Many military analysts argue, however, that a U.S. focus on the Islamic State, which has about 1,000 fighters in Afghanistan, is picking the wrong target.
“For months most of our drone program has been focused on the Islamic State. Why? . . . It’s the Taliban who threaten our interests far and away more than the Islamic State does,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst for Afghanistan and Pakistan and resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
In the latest blow, suspected Taliban fighters killed more than 140 Afghan soldiers a week ago in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Afghan forces since the U.S. and its allies toppled the Taliban in 2001 in retaliation for them sheltering al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The Taliban also have retaken critical areas, including, last month, the Sangin district center in Helmand province, which dozens of British troops and U.S. Marines died defending just a few years ago.
“The military put out what I will say is a ridiculous press release, saying ‘No, no, the district wasn’t overrun,’ ” Roggio said. “If that is the attitude of the U.S. military toward the Taliban inside Afghanistan. we will continue to lose this war. . . . Our policy within Afghanistan is a mess.”
The bomb temporarily brought the increasingly forgotten war in Afghanistan, which is in its 16th year, back to the public’s attention. There are more U.S. military forces – about 8,400 troops – deployed to Afghanistan than to any other active combat zone.
“The lasting effect (of the GBU-43/B bomb) is not so much strategic or tactical, but political,” Weinbaum said. “With this and (the strikes in) Syria, the Trump administration is demonstrating that it is prepared to use the military much more freely, and that they have freed up the military to really set the pace and agenda. I think that is the message now.”
Except for the choice of larger weapons, which hasn’t had a significant impact, there is really little that Trump is doing in Afghanistan for now that is different from President Barack Obama, Weinbaum said.
“He doesn’t really have any options. . . . It’s inherited circumstances, which means just buying time for an Afghanistan which is good enough” to leave, he said.