KABUL, Afghanistan — The sky-tearing blast last week was unlike anything the villagers around the Acchin valleys in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar had ever heard. It set off panicked phone calls and fearful speculations until word spread that the explosion was not a new insurgency strike but an air attack by the United States. The onslaught employed one of the few bombs to have its own set of names — the GBU-43/B, otherwise known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or the “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB).
It was the first time the 21,000-pound bomb, which covers a 1,000-yard radius, has been used in combat. The strike, directed at a network of tunnels used by insurgents, drew global attention to the long-running conflict in Afghanistan. “It was the right weapon, for the right target,” General John W. Nicholson, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, told a room of journalists in Kabul on Friday afternoon. But it wasn’t just Americans who were enthusiastic about the strike. Despite the worries sparked worldwide by the news, local Afghan leaders were cheering the MOAB.
“The attack was successful, and we all are happy, since there were no civilian casualties,” Zabiullah Zmarai, secretary of the provincial council in Nangarhar, told Foreign Policy. The official added that tribal areas from the neighboring districts of Shinwari, Charigam, and Kot had reached out to him to praise the MOAB. “Daesh [the Arabic term for the Islamic State] was a huge threat to the people in Nangarhar. They are relieved they were finished off with one bomb.”
Malawi Subhanullah Salim, an imam from the Bati Kot district bordering Acchin, spoke enthusiastically about the attack. “They [the United States] have pulled out the Islamic State by the roots from this region,” he told Foreign Policy, adding that his community welcomed this operation and was pleased with the results.
But others questioned the motivation. “The attack and the use of MOAB seems disproportionate,” said Timor Sharan, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Washington. He, like many, pegged the use of the bomb as a show of strength by the Trump administration. “It’s more about the message than the act — sending a clear message to regional players, including Russia and as far as North Korea, to say that the U.S. is ready to take action and utilize necessary force.”
Zmarai agreed that the move was a show of strength by the United States, but it was one that seemingly gratified him. “America wants to show her power to the countries like Pakistan and Russia, to warn Russia not to support Taliban anymore and to Pakistan not to produce terrorists,” he said.
Nicholson defended the timing of the attack, which came the day before multinational talks in Moscow on Afghan security. He said it was a tactical reaction after Afghan and U.S. forces came up against the tunnel and cave defenses that honeycomb the mountains. “The focus of [this] operation was nothing other than destroying Daesh in 2017,” Nicholson said, adding that the “Resolute Strike” operation had now liberated two-thirds of the province. He emphasized that the decision had been his alone — in sharp contrast with Trump’s evasion of a similar question the previous night.
But the Afghan enthusiasm for the strike came largely from its target, not from any geopolitical implications. The Islamic State was first reported in Afghanistan in 2014 but has steadily grown as a decentralized and scattered insurgency, most prominent in eastern Afghanistan. After initial failures to gain footing, a powerful local group, now calling itself the Islamic State Khorasan Province, coalesced around July 2016 in several districts of Nangarhar.
Even among Afghanistan’s radicalized armed groups, the Islamic State was not welcomed into the fold, largely because of an extremely fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that didn’t align with the complexities of local traditions and ethnic divisions. The group’s methods, copied from its parent in Syria, were seen as hideously brutal even by the local Taliban groups and sympathizers. From public beheadings of tribal elders, to kidnapping, to sexual assault, the Islamic State created a new terror structure parallel to the Taliban-led brutality that already existed, one that has shocked even conflict-hardened Afghans.
The insurgent group has also claimed responsibility for several attacks in the capital city of Kabul, including a double-suicide onslaught on a peaceful demonstration that caused dozens of casualties. The United Nations recorded about 900 civilians killed by the Islamic State in Afghanistan last year, a tenfold rise since the previous year. “They are animals!” Nicholson said. “They’ve sent suicide bombers to peaceful demonstrations and in mosques during prayer. Just last month, they shot and killed hospital patients in bed.” The Taliban condemned the hospital attack.
Fighting between the new insurgent group and Afghan forces has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. The Islamic State has also kidnapped many Afghans, holding them for ransom or as human shields. When Bahauddin Baha of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, heard about the blast his immediate concern was for his uncle, who was kidnapped three weeks earlier by Islamic State fighters from Haska Maina, a district near Acchin. “We don’t know if he got caught in the attack,” he said. “Even though I strongly believe it was insurgents who were targeted by attack. I feel so broken when I hear that the world’s heaviest bomb was dropped on my homeland. It doesn’t seem right to target terrorism like this.”
The official insurgent death toll is 96, but the extent of civilian casualties is still unclear. U.S., Afghan, and local authorities say there were none. “We haven’t heard of any casualties, except those from the insurgents,” said Salim, the preacher. “How could there be any when our brothers there have been fleeing from Daesh?”
Sediq Seddiqi, director of the Government Media & Information Center, told Foreign Policy that civilians had been warned about the attack and that surveillance footage of the site indicated there is no evidence of civilian casualties. “The Afghan forces working alongside the U.S. forces ensured that the last of the families living in that area were evacuated two days prior to the explosion,” said Javid Faisal, spokesperson for Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of the Islamic Republic. Zmarai, the local council leader, added that the United States had distributed leaflets by helicopter telling civilians to clear the area.
Although leaders both locally and in Kabul cheered the operation, former President Hamid Karzai accused the United States of using Afghanistan as a testing ground for dangerous weapons. “It is upon us Afghans to stop the USA,” he said on social media.
“If we don’t act against Daesh, we get blamed. If we do something, we still get blamed,” Faisal said, reacting to Karzai’s comment. “As Afghans and as leaders, we need to stand together against Daesh brutalities. This move showed our [the U.S. and Afghan governments] collective commitment to eliminating Daesh in Afghanistan. It should be encouraged.”
Photo Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images