Following the deployment of the GBU-43/B MOAB (Massive Ordinance Air Burst) 21,000 lb bomb in Nangarhar Province’s southern Achin district, the stronghold of Islamic State in Afghanistan, the international media has reported on the story in terms of the foreign policy challenges currently facing the Trump administration. Comparisons to the recent Tomahawk missile strike in Syria and implications for increasing tensions with North Korea dominate the media’s interpretation of the strike. There is, however, a much more direct and salient explanation for the Nangarhar bombing, and one with much more practical applications for Coalition interests abroad than the current speculation about Trump, Syria, and North Korea. In this piece, Afghanistan-based Intelligence Analyst Christopher McNulty examines the more tactically-relevant reasons behind the strike.
On April 13, an aircraft from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command dropped what has been described as “the mother of all bombs” in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. The strike has been immediately seized upon by the international media, which has fixated on the GBU-43/B’s status as the largest non-nuclear piece of ordinance in the U.S. arsenal, and the implications of its use on the wider global geopolitical environment.
While it is certainly possible the order for the strike may have come from the administration, Trump’s reaction strongly suggests that the decision was made with tactical considerations in mind by the Department of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the president himself.
In the past, Afghan-led operations against Islamic State in Nangarhar have suffered from a lack of manpower and resources, and hard-won gains against IS-K (the Islamic State’s Khorasan waliyat) in Nangarhar like those made in August 2016 are quickly lost when the Afghan military and police do not have enough manpower or materiel to hold newly-captured territory. Amid these constraints, American forces have declared that “[their] goal in 2017 is to defeat [IS-K] in Afghanistan,” according to U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, the spokesperson and director of public affairs for Resolute Support HQ in Kabul.
The last six weeks have witnessed a more substantial American military presence on the ground in eastern Afghanistan than any other time since the start of Operation Resolute Support in 2014. Amid heavy resistance, U.S. and Afghan special forces have made territorial gains across the front line between IS-K and the government spanning three districts of Nangarhar on the Pakistan border (Achin, Deh Bala, and Kot).
The operation has focused particularly on Achin district, considered to be the local command and control center of the IS-K deployment. Indeed, an American special operations soldier was killed last week during a firefight in Achin’s Shedal village – what was at that time a long-standing front line, according to local sources. American and Afghan forces have since advanced further south to the entrances of several Achin valleys, the most strategically and symbolically important of which is Mamand Valley.
Hindered by IEDs and an enemy dug into mountainous terrain, the operation has halted abruptly. The GBU-43/B bomb was dropped to soften up a resilient target and destroy the tunnel systems which made a U.S./Afghan ground advance unfeasible and highly dangerous. Local sources also report that the timing of the strike was no coincidence, and unconfirmed HUMINT reporting points to a large gathering (rumored to number in the hundreds) of IS-K commanders and fighters in the tunnels of Mamand Valley. While it seems unlikely that a group whose primary fear is drone strikes would gather in such numbers, they may have felt safe meeting underground, lending credence to the idea that a gathering of some size may have taken place.
If true, the bomb has not only softened the valley for an impending advance by U.S. and Afghan forces, but may have seriously crippled the leadership structure of the group whose strength has been estimated at only 1,000-2,000 as of late 2016.
This leads to another critical question: how might the potential weakening of Islamic State followed by a successful anti-IS ground operation shift the balance of power in Afghanistan? The Taliban, who have had several high-profile successes in Helmand, Kunduz, and Farah provinces, are fiercely opposed to Islamic State, as the group rejects the Taliban’s legitimacy, threatens their control of territory, and has a history of attracting disaffected Taliban commanders to their ranks. A crippled IS-K could embolden both the Afghan government and the traditional insurgency, a dynamic which might play out through summer 2017 in unpredictable ways.
While the deployment of the weapon certainly does demonstrate a more aggressive stance by the new U.S. administration, the high tactical relevance of the strike to the situation on the ground makes it unlikely that this was engineered by Trump, especially with Syria and North Korea in mind.
With so much of what is at stake in the US-led coalition’s Afghanistan mission potentially re-imagined by the April 13 strike, observers should follow media reporting of this attack with caution. Instead of Syria and North Korea, the true relevance of this incident to the United States and its standing in the world will be what it means for the future of Islamic State, the future of the Afghan insurgency, and – perhaps most worryingly – how possible civilian casualties from the blast could affect local perceptions of America around the Muslim world.
Christopher McNulty is an American security analyst based in Afghanistan, with a focus on both national politics and the local insurgency in Nangarhar and Helmand provinces. He has written extensively on these issues, although this is his first piece to be openly published.