Why Did America Drop the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan?

ISIS was the target, but an expert told us the historic attack was also about sending a message to Russia.

by Mike Pearl
14 April 2017, 6:19pm

Photo via the Pentagon

Seemingly out of the blue on Thursday, the US military for the first time deployed a bomb called the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), the third-most powerful explosive the America has ever used in battle after the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. The MOAB, or "Mother of All Bombs," is a ginormous, and somewhat crude, conventional bomb, weighing about as much as four Humvees and producing a small, nuke-style mushroom cloud when it blows up.

The target? An Islamic State affiliate stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump, some quickly argued, was just keeping a campaign promise to "bomb the shit out of" ISIS, and intelligence reports from the Afghanistan government say that's just what he did—36 dead ISIS guys, and no reported civilian casualties. But the decision is still puzzling: If using an almost unimaginably powerful weapon was meant as a promise kept to voters who craved ISIS blood, why shed it several countries away from the primary ISIS stronghold and de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, in a place where ISIS isn't even the biggest problem? And if Trump is so proud of the MOAB attack, why is he being—especially by his own standards—downright cagey about telling us whose idea it was?

To find out how the use of this bomb fits into the larger geopolitical scene right now, I talked to Faisel Pervaiz, who analyzes South Asian affairs for the Austin, Texas-based military intelligence firm Stratfor. Our conversation shed light on how a demonstration of might serves US diplomatic aims—particularly at a time when Russia is increasing its involvement in the region. But Pervaiz cautioned not to expect this bomb to shift the tide of America's longest war.

VICE: For starters, it's probably helpful to talk about how long we've been in Afghanistan.
Pervaiz: I always like to remind people about how long of a war this has been. I want to remind people that this war began October 7, 2001. Meaning this was before there was ever YouTube, Facebook [so] keep that in mind.

This bomb has been in the US arsenal since 2003, so almost that whole time. Why did the US suddenly use it against ISIS when the Taliban have been there for ages?
I think people think about the Islamic State, and their minds naturally go to Syria and Iraq, and reasonably so. That's where the most intense fighting has been, [but] this bomb, which was dropped in Nangarhar province in Achin district, was specifically dropped on tunnels that were being used by the Islamic State. So the first significance, from my standpoint, is that IS has branched beyond Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan, and they're a very real and resilient presence there.

So why MOAB them, if we're using that as a verb now?
When they go underground, of course, it becomes more difficult to attack them from the air. Part of the rationale in using a 21,000-pound bomb is that when you're using that bomb, you're almost creating a mini-earthquake. Your intention is to have the ground buckle and cave in on itself, and basically crush the people underneath.

Is there maybe any deeper significance to this move?
I think if you sort of move the dial along the spectrum, there are other events which are a bit more ambiguous in their interpretation. When I look at this bombing, I think about how something's going to be happening [Friday] in Moscow. Obviously, recently, we had those chemical attacks that happened in Syria. Of course, the two big countries that are sparring over the meaning of those attacks, and who is culpable, are the US and Russia: [Friday] in Moscow, Russia is going to be hosting talks on the war in Afghanistan. These are going to be the third talks that Moscow is hosting ever since December, and that's significant because that's showing that Russia is now deepening its involvement in another theater of war to try to gain leverage against Washington.

Say more about that connection—between the talks and the bomb.
When we drop a bomb that weighs 21,000 pounds—that's so big. I think a part of it, or some part of it, is the messaging and the symbolic significance that the US is sending out to countries such as Russia: that we are the premier military in the world. We are the biggest power. We have the tools and weapons to show you that this is the case.

What does Russia want out of this?
Russia is threatened by the Islamic State. Keep this in mind: sometimes it's important to add the nuance here, which I think your readers will appreciate, and that is not all insurgency is cut from the same cloth. When we talk about the Taliban, specifically the Afghan Taliban, it's a nationalist movement which is focused on conquering Kabul. Their focus is on Afghanistan. But when you look at the Islamic State, that is a transnational jihadist movement, meaning they want to lead a group across borders, and as a matter of fact, that's what they've done by getting into Afghanistan to begin with. So, yes, Russia and United States see a similar threat, but the problem—and this is where you're seeing both sides butt heads—is that Russia is also playing geopolitics. Why is Russia involved in Syria? It's because Russia is trying to increase its influence so it can use it as leverage with Washington in other situations that Russia and Washington disagree with.

So the US might be hoping this big bomb shakes Russia's confidence a little?
That's right. These events in international politics can have many shades of meaning, and it's always a challenge to figure out what factor carries the greatest weight. I think that is one factor.

What's another?
Just last week, for the first time this year in Afghanistan, an American soldier was killed. This was a US special forces soldier. And that person was killed in the same province in the same district. [Though] I'm not saying that itself was the part of the decision making calculus.

Is a move against ISIS or its affiliates in Afghanistan also a move against the Taliban?
Absolutely! Mid-April is usually when the Taliban launch what they call their spring offensive. They do this every single year. When the weather gets warmer, the fighting across Afghanistan intensifies, and usually that means you're gonna see some big attack. In Kabul—in one of the urban centers, that's usually where you see some opening salvo in the year's spring offensive. [So] any action the US takes in Afghanistan, even if it's technically against another group like the Islamic State, it's also sending a very clear signal to the Taliban that we're still in the fight, and we're in it to win.

And would you guess that this will turn out to be a successful strategy?
I think this is an example of a tactical victory, but it's not going to by any means blunt the intensity of the war. You have the full fury of the world's most powerful military in that country for a decade and a half, and that has not ultimately extinguished the insurgency, so at the end of the day, this war is not going to be won through military means. All the sides know that. At the end of the day, the war ultimately will be won through politics. It's going to be a negotiated settlement, where the Taliban and the Afghan government, and all the parties involved are going to have to talk things out. That's the way it's going to end. And right now, the war is essentially in a stalemate.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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