News of the strike, unsurprisingly, exploded in the U.S. press and on social media (no pun intended), giving the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan under Operational Freedom’s Sentinel more attention than it received all throughout the 2016 election campaign season. In a sense, the attention was justified. Leaving aside the notability of the first combat use of the GBU-43/B, the strike represented a stark strategic departure from the sort of operations the U.S. military had been conducting in Afghanistan. Yes, the United States has been bombing Afghanistan with conventional ordnance for 16 years, but the precise type of bomb here drew greater attention than normal.
Some readers may recall also that the Islamic State’s so-called ‘Khorasan Province’ in Afghanistan prompted the Obama administration to review and expand the scope of possible tactics while remaining within the rubric of the U.S.-Afghanistan 2014 Bilateral Security Agreement. One anonymous U.S. official had told Reuters back then that U.S. forces would be able to use additional air power “in those select instances in which their engagement can enable strategic effects on the battlefield.” The decision accompanied growing concern about the Taliban’s growing seizure of territory across the country and was shortly followed by the administration’s final decision in Afghanistan to decrease U.S. troop count from 9,800 to 8,400, where it stands to this day. According to Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, who spoke to The Daily Beast, the Obama administration authorized the use of any ordnance within the U.S. military’s active inventory in January 2016. The GBU-43/B, meanwhile, was delivered to Afghanistan in January of this year.
Since the Trump administration entered office, we’ve seen little strategic clarity on near-term U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. Trump has made fighting global terrorism — specifically the Islamic State — a banner issue. Indeed, he reversed course on his criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) earlier this week when he decided that NATO’s counter-terrorism focus did not merit a designation of obsolescence. Similarly, the Islamic State in Afghanistan may draw more interest from Trump than the Taliban with due course.
Judging by Trump’s reaction to questions about the GBU-43/B’s on the Afghan battlefield, it appears that the authorization may have come at the theater-level — presumably from General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The target in question — Islamic State tunnel networks — would certainly be susceptible to the effects of the GBU-43/B. While not designed to penetrate hardened targets, the GBU-43/B’s massive 11 ton H6 explosive surface blast would likely have little trouble with this kind of target. The United States has not released any bomb damage assessment publicly since the strike as of this writing, leaving us in the dark for now as to whether or not using the unusually large bomb achieved the desired outcome on the battlefield.
But even if the MOAB was used for tactical effect in line with the rule of engagement changes implemented by the Obama administration, the question of strategy remains unclear. Trump has broadly reiterated U.S. support to Afghanistan per a publicly available readout of his call with Ashraf Ghani, but the administration remains mostly quiet on strategy in Afghanistan. For instance, if the administration had publicly reiterated a plan to enter peace talks with the Taliban, the tactical use of the MOAB — a ‘shock-and-awe’ weapon — could plausibly be read as signaling to the insurgent group that the United States would employ heavier handed tactics if they resist. Instead, the Taliban has gone about announcing its annual ‘Spring Offensive’ and continues to keep up the heat on Afghan forces across the country’s periphery.
On the line of the tactical effect of the bomb, it’s worth appreciating that even though the United States has dropped more than 10,000 bombs on Afghanistan just in the last five years (many in runs yielding more total ordnance than a single GBU-43/B), the MOAB is understandably different, at least in terms of optics. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who grew sharply critical of the United States’ use of force in Afghanistan in his final years in office, issued a statement condemning what he described as the “most brutal misuse of [Afghanistan] as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons.” Karzai added that “It is upon us, Afghans, to stop the [United States].”
Karzai’s view is shared by a not-insignificant number of Afghans, including some who may be increasingly susceptible to recruitment by the Islamic State. Nangarhar, after all, is Afghanistan’s third-most population dense province. Per reports, Afghan authorities were not notified of the impending use of the massive bomb. A U.S. Central Command statement, however, noted that “U.S. Forces took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike.” Use of the ‘shock-and-awe’ MOAB may have unanticipated public opinion costs for the United States. Of course, by the same token, many Afghans — especially in Kabul — will be delighted to see what appears to be a dramatic uptick in U.S. resolve against the Islamic State. Still, without a declaration of strategic intent from the Trump administration, one tactical incident hardly portends a sustain campaign.
Finally, it is somewhat ironic that the strike would come the same week U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is slated to land in Kabul for his first trip to the region in that role. (McMaster will go on to visit Islamabad and New Delhi as well.) In his famous book, Dereliction of Duty, McMaster wrote that a strategy of attrition “was, in essence, the absence of a strategy.” Moreover, his experience as the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq showed a commitment to understanding how U.S. choices on the battlefield could drive peaceful locals to turn hostile. One wonders if McMaster’s trip to Kabul will clarify if the United States’ current strategy in Afghanistan is anything but attrition against both the Islamic State and the Taliban in a hope to maintain what has effectively been a stalemate since the end of combat operations in 2014. In the wake of the GBU-43/B’s unexpected and dramatic use, Afghan officials will no doubt be looking for some assurance that Washington is both paying attention to Afghanistan and has something of a plan to turn the tide of battle.