American and Afghan forces have arrived at the site of the massive US bomb blast that targeted a complex of tunnels and caves in Achin, Nangarhar, the stronghold of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), on 13 April 2017. Journalists and other independent observers have not yet been allowed to enter the area, so information about the immediate impact of the 11-ton bomb, dropped in the early evening, so far still only comes from official sources. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert, Borhan Osman and Kate Clark have looked at why the US chose to drop such a colossal bomb, wondering whether it was proportionate to the threat posed by ISKP, and what its impact on ISKP and Afghanistan may be.The US military dropped a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb on an ISKP stronghold in Achin on 13 April 2017. Photo credit: screen grab of footage released by the US military.
In the early evening (19.32) of 13 April, the US Air Force dropped what is known as a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB (nick-named the ‘Mother of All Bombs’), on a complex of tunnels held by the local affiliate of Daesh, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP or, for the US military, ISIS-K). The tunnel complex is at the entrance to the Mamand Valley in the Asadkhel area of Achin district in the mountainous south of Nangarhar, which borders the Pakistani tribal areas. At 11 tons, the bomb was the most powerful, non-nuclear bomb ever to have been launched in combat. (Video of the bomb’s impact, initially posted here by the US military, can still be accessed here).
Mark Galasco, previously with the US military (he later worked on civilian casualties for the United Nations in Afghanistan) said the US military had considered using the MOAB in Iraq in 2003, but decided against it because of the anticipated civilian harm. General John Nicholson, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that in this case they had been monitoring the site for days and were confident there were no civilians in the area of the blast. “As ISIS-K’s losses have mounted,” Nicholson said, “they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense… This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K.” The Afghan government, in turn, said the attack was carried out in coordination with them and they supported it.
The number of bodies so far retrieved from the site, all judged to be ISKP, are reported to be in the dozens (local officials reported at least 90 dead), but the numbers are likely to rise. Afghan and US forces have yet to get into the ‘hole’ caused by the blast. Depending on how many fighters were killed and how senior they were, the military may be hoping this could be a ‘knock-out’ blow for ISKP.
How significant was the ISKP stronghold in Nangarhar?
Nangarhar is the only province in Afghanistan where ISKP still has a significant territorial presence. The movement captured eight districts in the south of the province in July 2015, which were later reduced to four. (Read about the reasons why this area was vulnerable to ISKP takeover – provincial government’s weakness and corruption, American bungling, Taleban fragmentation, the presence of multiple Afghan and foreign militant groups and a history of Salafism – here.)
The core of the ISKP group in Nangarhar is made up of a group of Orakzais and other tribal fighters from the Tehrik Taleban Pakistan (TTP), veterans of Pakistan’s tribal area insurgency who were pushed across the border by the Pakistani military in the Zarb-e Azb offensive, launched in June 2015. Originally ‘guests’ of the local Taleban, the Orakzais turned on their hosts in July 2015, and drove the Taleban out. As David Mansfield reported, the Taleban did regroup, with reinforcements from Bati Kot, Kot and Shinwar districts, and Mamand supporters from the local population still living in the Mamand valley. They pushed Daesh out and up the valley, Mansfield says, but there was a brutal counter attack:
The houses of what were seen as local Taliban supporters were burned to the ground, families forced to flee and those local elders viewed as collaborators were captured and executed. The result was an exodus of families relocating to the safety of their relatives’ houses in Taliban- or government-controlled areas to escape Daesh’s rule. In their stead, Orakzai and Bajauri families moved into their homes – the most prestigious going to senior Orakzai commanders.
ISKP ruled the area with particular brutality, beheading members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), closing clinics and schools, and, in what were blows to families’ economic survival, banning opium and marijuana cultivation.
Ongoing operations and an ongoing war
To a large part of the European and American public, the dropping of the MOAB in Afghanistan must have come as a surprise, as if it were a massive one-off attack. The Afghan war in general, had dropped off the radar in America, where it was barely mentioned during the 2016 presidential campaign. Even if the Afghan war is remembered, people tend to consider it as a conflict that is only 16 years old, starting with the US intervention in 2001. (AAN has had to remind interviewers on the day after the bombing that the Afghan war has now lasted for nearer to four decades). Moreover, President Obama did announce on 27 May 2014 that by the end of that year the combat mission in Afghanistan would be over. And indeed on 1 January 2015, a new NATO non-combat mission, Resolute Support, with an advise, assist and train mandate was launched. Yet, the US military, with its separate counter-terrorism ‘Freedom Sentinel’ mission always had the authority to conduct combat operations. In reality, these combat operations never stopped. The US continued to use air strikes, place Special Operations Forces ‘advisors’ on the ground and occasionally use artillery against ISKP, al Qaeda and since June 2016 also Taleban targets. (1)
In Nangarhar, the US launched air strikes against ISKP (and the Taleban) throughout 2016 and during the first few months of 2017. The strikes were in support of Afghan and US Special Forces ground operations against ISKP that took place several times during that period. The emerging pattern of these efforts, though, was that of successful offensives, with the seizure of significant territory from ISKP, followed by the inability of conventional Afghan forces to hold the ground that the Special Forces had taken. As a result, ISKP would push back and return. In several cases, ISKP brutally killed local Afghan forces after the operations had ended.
The last operation, codenamed Hamza, was launched in early April 2017 and seemed more intense than previous ones. It led to significant ISKP casualties, as reported by official Afghan and US military sources, and confirmed by independent and ISKP sources. ISKP activists on social media reported the dispatch of several batches of suicide bombers to engage in face-to-face battles with Afghan and US forces or to attack their Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Operation Hamza led to a significant loss of territory for ISKP in Kot district and for the first time, Afghan and US forces were carrying out operations inside the Mamand Valley, itself, the strategic stronghold of ISKP. The group was so firmly entrenched in the mountainous valley that neither the Afghan/US forces, or previously, the Taleban had ever been able to dislodge them from there, even after clearing most other areas, according to local elders from the valley. They said that since the valley appeared unbreachable, most of the ISKP’s political and military leadership had based themselves there. Afghan commandos and US Special Forces had been poised to take the Mamand Valley as the next step during its campaign. There is no precise information about how much of the original population had fled the Mamand valley. Elders thought that more than half of the people had left, after ISKP brutality and the burning of people’s houses had forced many to flee.
ISKP has long used the network of caves in the Mamand Valley to hold prisoners. Ever since the group maintained strong control over the area, it brought captives from any of the four districts where it controlled territory to the caves, so that they did not need to be moved as battle frontlines shifted. Although it is not clear as yet if there were any captives held in the caves at the time of the bombing, it was one of the first concerns expressed by locals in the wake of the strike. Prisoners included members of the communities under ISKP rule who did not submit to its orders. Many of these prisoners were also considered spies by the group, for having links to the Taleban or the Afghan government.
The MOAB was dropped in the Asadkhel area, at the entrance into the valley. The question now is whether it was militarily necessary to destroy the cave complex in Asadkhel in order to capture Mamand, and whether it was necessary to use this bomb to do it, with all the drama and headlines it brought with it.
Both the Afghan Ministry of Defence General Nicholson have suggested that it had been necessary. Nicholson said the MOAB was necessary to “minimize the risk to Afghan and U.S. Forces conducting clearing operations in the area while maximizing the destruction of ISIS-K fighters and facilities.” The US military point of view is that, in (what it says was) the absence of civilians, and with the knowledge that hard fighting would have led to casualties among their own and Afghan forces, overwhelming force was a legitimate means of shortening the fight and protecting their troops.
Were there really no civilian casualties?
With a bomb of such force and magnitude, it is difficult to conceive that only the intended target will be affected and that civilian suffering can be prevented. Afghan authorities, however, have claimed that there were indeed no civilian casualties (this included statements by defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri, the army spokesman in Nangarhar, and the Achin district governor).
Their claims have been difficult to verify, due to a serious – and long-standing – shortage of information coming from areas under the control of ISKP generally, and Mamand Valley, its tightly-kept stronghold, in particular. Journalists have been unable to travel to the area. Normally, local elders would provide information, but most have fled the area. The number of detailed reports about developments and life within ISKP-controlled areas has been close to zero. In the light of this blackout of reporting, Afghan and US officials have had a comfortable monopoly on the flow of information about the outcome of the strike in Achin. It may be true that there were no civilian casualties – sustained aerial surveillance from drones will have given the US a clear idea of who was living in the area of the blast. But we may also find casualties coming to light in the coming days and weeks.
UNAMA had already drawn attention to the rising number of casualties from air strikes (both US and Afghan) in the war generally and the “considerable increases in civilian casualties caused solely by international military [ie US] forces in Nangarhar province” in particular. UNAMA’s 2016 annual report on the Protection of Civilians, noted that 89 civilians had been killed or injured in 13 aerial operations in 2016 compared to 18 during 10 aerial operations in 2015.
Some of the commentary on the MOAB strike on Twitter and in the press has focused on whether locals support such strikes, or not. Given the difficulty of getting views from the area, assertions either way seem premature. It may also be that a more complex, nuanced view of the bomb may be nearer the mark (see also these first reactions).
The complexities involved in discussing local views is illustrated by the one piece of research on the impact of drones in Afghanistan, from the UK’s Durham University. The study gathered opinions from people in two (un-named) districts of Nangarhar, described as pro-government and Pashtun, found people to be generally supportive. They said the strikes accurately targeted militants who had been making their lives a misery. However, the research also found that locals’ were living lives horribly constrained by both the drones and the militants, leaving them unable to live normal lives. They were worried about attack if they went out into the mountains to gather fodder or herd livestock, or when they gathered for weddings and funerals or hosted guests, with the threats coming from both sides. It was a bleak picture of a life where the successful killing of militants did not feel like victory and did not lead to an easing of the difficult living conditions (Read about UNAMA statistics and the drone study here.)
Was the scale of the attack proportionate to the ISKP threat?
When the MOAB was developed in 2003, the Pentagon ordered a legal review to ensure the impact of the bomb could not be deemed indiscriminate, and therefore illegal under the Law of Armed Conflict. It found that, “Although the moab weapon leaves a large footprint, it is discriminate and requires a deliberate launching toward the target.” One aspect of the bomb, the report found, was that, “It is expected that the weapon will have a substantial psychological effect on those who witness its use.” And indeed, local reporting suggested that the explosion could be felt across several districts.
Given ISKP’s limited role in Afghanistan, there are questions as to whether the size and the threat the group posed warranted such a dramatic strike. (One commentator described the attack as: “America’s biggest non-nuclear bomb… used on one of the smallest militias it faces anywhere in the world.”)
When the US decided to drop the MOAB, ISKP was under pressure. Its territory was shrinking and although they still had a well-entrenched stronghold in the Mamand Valley, there was no great threat of expansion or momentum. Elsewhere in the country, the movement had largely been suppressed by the Taleban. ISKP groups that had sprung up in different parts of Afghanistan had all been tiny and most of them were not linked to ‘IS central’ in Syria and Iraq, at all – they had merely adopted the brand and flag of IS. The ISKP group based in Nangarhar did have stronger, institutional links, as it was recognized by the IS ‘headquarters’ and its operations were carried on central IS media platforms. ISKP sources, moreover, told AAN in March 2017 that Raqqa had dispatched a couple of commanders from the centre to oversee operations in Khorasan after the death of the group’s leader Saeed Khan in July 2016. ISKP is also reputed to have better funding than the Taleban – a possible incentive for dissatisfied Taleban commanders to switch. But its reach was still limited.
All in all, in terms of IS internationally and the overall war in Afghanistan, ISKP is marginal. Its territorial hold is tiny and has been shrinking (2). It has failed to move beyond its initial pattern of recruitment that mainly involved foreign militants and ‘dissident’ Taleban, often men thrown out of the movement for being Salafist or criminal. The one place where its significance has grown is Kabul, where it managed to launch two sectarian attacks which led to mass casualties: the Ashura commemorations of 2016 and a gathering of largely Hazara (so mainly Shia) protesters about the routing of the TUTAP electricity line. (AAN reported on the presence of ISKP cells in the capital here.) The group’s ability to carry out such mass murders in the capital may not be hindered by setbacks – or defeat – in Nangarhar. ISKP also has a sizeable following of ‘desk-bound’ supporters, who support it virtually from their computers, and from a range of Salafist networks (usually centred around madrasas in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan) of previously non-violent, non-jihadi, ulama.
One reason for wanting to ‘stamp out’ the ISKP stronghold in Nangarhar, also mentioned by General Nicholson during his press conference (see video here) was the fear of the consequences of further defeats to IS in Iraq and Syria, with the possibility of Arab and other supporters from there re-locating to Afghanistan. There are already reports of more foreign fighters, including Arabs, coming to join ISKP and of there being some movement to and from the Middle East.
The bomb may well have killed a large number of ISKP fighters and commanders, diminishing its leadership and affecting its operational capabilities. But there may also be unintended consequences. The use of such a huge bomb made a strike against a minor organisation world news, which in turn could help ISKP recruit. ISKP radio, Khilafat Ghag, already said, in its evening transmission on 14 April 2017 that the battle in ‘Khorasan’ (the old Islamic name for the region now containing Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and Iran) against the US had entered a conclusive point, where Muslims have no justification not to support its campaign. “These orientalists know our religion well,” the broadcast said. “They know about the prophetic narrations that an army that will emerge from Khorasan and knock on the doors of Jerusalem.” It was the strict resistance of ISKP against the US-Afghan offensive, it said, that had forced the US to drop its biggest bomb: “It is obvious that the enemy feels the need for such huge strikes when they face, proportionally, a huge level of resistance. There is no other reason for this strike than that the US and its allies have lost their morale against the lions of the Islamic State in Khorasan.” Another statement from the radio said “By God, hundreds of youth are preparing to join the Islamic State ranks, thanks to the dropping of this bomb.”
The main actual threat ISKP represents is against the Taleban. ISKP has the image of being ‘younger and more radical’, more media savvy and reputedly better funded than the old guard. The Taleban fear a threat akin to what the mujahedin faced in 1994, when it was the Taleban that was the young, rising power. Although that fear may be overplayed, the Taleban has taken the threat seriously, moving in to try to physically eliminate ISKP (as it did in Zabul) or to disarm dissident and wavering commanders.
But for Afghanistan as a whole, and in the context of the entire insurgency, the threat posed by ISKP is marginal. The Taleban are, by far, the largest and best organised element in the insurgency. Even among foreign groups, al Qaeda may still be stronger and have better international and Afghan linkages than Daesh. Although General Nicholson stressed that the attack had been determined by events and circumstances on the ground, one could therefore ask whether the strike was about Afghanistan in the first place.
Wider political calculations?
Eliminating ISKP is, along with al Qaeda, is at the top of US strategic aims in Afghanistan (see for example Nicholson’s testimony to Congress in January). Defeating IS featured heavily, as one of the few foreign policy objectives, during President Trump’s 2016 election campaign – he, among other things, promised to “bomb the shit out of them.” Islamic State is a name which carries weight in America.
Pentagon officials have said that planning to use the MOAB pre-dated the Trump presidency and that the bomb had been in Afghanistan for months. Even so, the drama of launching the MOAB seems to have been part of the political calculation of wanting to be seen to strike IS and to strike them hard.
The bombing of ISKP targets in Afghanistan by the US is not new, but the size of the bomb –and the consistent use of the “America’s biggest non-nuclear bomb” moniker – made the strike into a huge news story, both in the US and worldwide. The bomb thus appears to be part and parcel of a desire by president Trump to ‘take the gloves off’ his military. He had already removed restrictions aimed at protecting civilians when the US conducts air strikes in Somalia and Yemen. In Afghanistan, the US military had learned, to its cost, that civilian casualties harm the military effort and had worked hard over the years to increase safeguards and precautions, realising that protecting civilians was of strategic value.
Although Nicholson stressed that the possibility for collateral damage had been carefully assessed, the colossal nature of the weapon that was used feels like a step-change in the war. Moreover, the framing of this bomb as the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used on the battlefield betrays a fascination with lethal force that is worrying. A former intelligence officer described the MOAB as “a bravado weapon” which meant that “You basically have a mushroom cloud in Afghanistan.”
Indeed, some Afghans have expressed concerns that their country is being used as an arena to try out the impact of rarely used weapons, project an image of American strength and show other countries what happens if you cross Washington. “This is not the war on terror“ tweeted former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, “but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as [a] testing ground for new and dangerous weapons.”
As Afghan and US soldiers pick through the rubble, the success of the operation in terms of its damage to ISKP will become clearer: how many ISKP fighters and commanders were killed, what was their seniority and were any of the leadership killed. More operations are anyway expected against the group elsewhere in Nangarhar. Local sources in Achin reported that Afghan forces (most likely jointly with US forces) were already carrying an operation in Pekha area, another tightly-held ISKP centre adjacent to the Mamand Valley. ISKP in its radio transmission on 14 April 2017 dedicated fully to MOAB, vowed to take revenge for dropping the bomb “on the oppressed people of Achin.”
The final verdict on the bomb for many Afghans may rest on how reckless the use of the bomb turns out to have been, after it becomes clear whether civilians were or were not harmed. Its impact on ISKP may take more time to assess. As for its impact on the Afghan war, generally, it is difficult to imagine that even a bomb of this size and nature will have an effect that is anything more than marginal.
(1) In June 2016, Obama increased the authority of the US commander in Afghanistan to order offensive strikes, with potential targets including not just al Qaeda, but also the Taleban, and for reasons not just of ‘counterterrorism’. The US commander could additionally also strike for “strategic effects,” for example, if he believed US firepower could prevent a population centre falling to the Taleban.
(2) Sources in the Nangarhar-based ISKP said the emir had recently officially extended the group’s presence to neighboring Kunar province, after two years of muted presence there. They claimed the group had carried out attacks against Afghan forces there in February 2017. ISKP social media activists also carried statements claiming attacks in two districts of Jawzjan, last week. Overall, though, its territorial control has still been decreasing rather than expanding.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020