News analysis

US display of firepower 'a warning to more than just ISIS'

The blast radius of the massive bomb that United States forces dropped on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) territory in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province was well over a kilometre in every direction - and its message was heard worldwide.

The Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) was dropped on Thursday to crush underground tunnels being used by ISIS fighters in the area. It marked the second time in recent days that the US has shown its firepower. Over a week ago, it fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase following a chemical weapons attack that the US blamed on Syrian government forces.

During last year's US presidential election campaign, then candidate Donald Trump had sworn to wipe out ISIS. Specifically, he said repeatedly that he would "bomb the sh**" out of the group. But analysts say the message the bomb sent was designed for more than just ISIS.

"He wants to telegraph his determination to take out ISIS wherever it is, using the most powerful methods possible," said Mr Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. "At the same time, he wants to warn audiences in North Korea and Syria, and perhaps even Iran, that the US has the will and capacity to unleash the most withering uses of force if the need arises."

In a statement, General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said that as ISIS faced mounting losses, the group was using improvised explosive devices, bunkers and tunnels to "thicken their defence".

A security and intelligence analyst familiar with the conflict in Afghanistan, who asked not to be named, told The Straits Times that while the use of the massive bomb might not have been strictly necessary, there was operational justification.

"The fight against Daesh in Nangarhar province has not been progressing due to a tunnel network made by Daesh," he said, using an acronym for the Arab name of ISIS.

"However, I believe the use of the MOAB is to tell the Russians and others that the US is prepared to hit hard, just like in Syria."

Yesterday, Russian Senator Igor Morozov was quoted as saying that the US' use of the bomb was "an attempt to establish world dominance... which may initiate a new round of arms race and increase tension in the world".

Mr Kugelman noted that "such signalling to other countries can be dangerous as it could well cause them to up the ante and stage their own provocative acts, like more missile tests in the case of North Korea".

He added: "In Afghanistan, the US could score a major tactical victory if this bomb ends up eliminating large numbers of ISIS fighters. But here is the sobering thought - at the end of the day, the Taleban is the bigger threat in Afghanistan."

US military officials say the Taleban controls about a third of Afghanistan, while ISIS is said to control a relatively small area in Nangarhar province, adjoining the border with Pakistan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'US display of firepower 'a warning to more than just ISIS''. Print Edition | Subscribe