KABUL/WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - As many as 36 suspected ISIS militants were killed in Afghanistan when the United States dropped “the mother of all bombs,” its largest non-nuclear device ever unleashed in combat, the Afghan defence ministry said on Friday (April 14).
Thursday’s strike came as US President Donald Trump dispatches his first high-level delegation to Kabul, amid uncertainty about his plans for the nearly 9,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan.
The deaths have not been independently verified, but ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said no civilians were harmed in the massive blast that targeted a network of caves and tunnels.
“No civilian has been hurt and only the base, which Daesh used to launch attacks in other parts of the province, was destroyed,” Waziri said in a statement. He was using an Arabic term that refers to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has established a small stronghold in eastern Afghanistan and launched deadly attacks on the capital, Kabul.
The GBU-43 bomb, which has 11 tonnes of explosives, was dropped from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of the eastern province of Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said on Thursday.
The device, also known as the “mother of all bombs,” is a GPS-guided munition that had never before been used in combat since its first test in 2003, when it produced a mushroom cloud visible from 32 km away.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai condemned the use of the weapon on Afghan soil. “This is not the war on terror, but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons,” he said on social media network Twitter.
At a village about 5 km from the remote, mountainous area where the bomb was dropped, homes and shops appeared unaffected by the blast, a Reuters witness said.
Residents said they saw militants climbing up and down the mountain every day, making occasional visits to the village.
“They were Arabs, Pakistanis, Chinese and local insurgents coming to buy from shops in the bazaar,” said resident Raz Mohammad.
On Friday, the village was swarming with Afghan and international troops, as helicopters and other aircraft flew overhead.
The strike was part of a joint operation between Afghan and international troops, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement. “Afghan and foreign troops closely coordinated this operation and were extra cautious to avoid any civilian casualties,” it said.
American officials said the bomb had been positioned for possible use in Afghanistan for “some time” since the administration of former president Barack Obama.
The United States has steadily intensified its air campaign against ISIS and Taleban militants in Afghanistan, with the Air Force deploying nearly 500 weapons in the first three months of 2017, up from 300 in the corresponding 2016 period.
Thursday's strike was the first combat use of what is formally named the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. President Donald Trump has bestowed additional authority on the Pentagon in his first months in office, which the military has argued will help it defeat ISIS more speedily.
Trump did not say whether he had personally approved Thursday's mission.
"What I do is I authorise my military," Trump said after a meeting with emergency workers at the White House. He called the bombing "another very, very successful mission."
The Pentagon gave no casualty totals for the bombing, part of an intense air campaign against the militant group in Afghanistan.
But in a separate announcement, the Pentagon said that an airstrike in Syria by the US-led coalition fighting the ISIS there had killed 18 Syrian fighters allied with the United States, raising concerns about whether the White House is applying any rigour to the process of approving airstrikes in hot spots from Afghanistan to Syria.
The Syria strike - on Tuesday near the town of Tabqah, which Syrian fighters and American advisers are trying to capture - was the third US-led airstrike in a month that may have killed civilians or allies. Earlier bombing runs killed or wounded scores of civilians in a mosque complex in Syria and in a building in the west of Mosul, Iraq.
"We have the greatest military in the world," Trump said. "We have given them total authorisation, and that's what they're doing, and frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately."
US commanders in Iraq and Syria have been given more authority to call in strikes, a loosening of the reins that began in the last month of the Obama administration. But some national security experts said that Trump and the Pentagon risked inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world with their approach to fighting ISIS.
The number of civilian casualties reported in US-led strikes in Iraq and Syria has increased since Trump took office, and March was the deadliest month for civilians ever recorded by Airwars, a group that tracks bombings. Reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria jumped to 3,471 from 1,782 the month before, the group said.
American officials have attributed the rising number of strikes and the increased danger to civilians to the fact that the fight is moving to the densely populated urban battlefields of Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS's self-proclaimed capital in Syria.
They say they try to avoid civilian casualties, while the militants deliberately kill anyone who stands in their way.
In addition to the loosening of control in Iraq and Syria begun under the Obama administration, Trump has relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia and Yemen.
"Trump has ceded responsibilities to his military commanders, and it appears he's paying little attention to operational details," said Derek Chollet, who was the assistant secretary of defense for international affairs in the Obama administration.
"Here's the question," Chollet added. "Trump takes great pride in his authorising the military when things go well, but one wonders if he'll have the same sense of shared accountability when things go wrong, as they inevitably do."
Thursday's strike in Afghanistan - using a 20,000-pound bomb that cost US$16 million, and more than US$300 million to develop - hit a tunnel complex in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, according to a statement from the US military in Afghanistan.
The statement did not say how many militants were killed, or whether the bombing caused any civilian casualties.
The weapon is so big that, while the cargo plane is in the air, the bomb rolls out of the rear on a pallet, pulled by a drogue parachute.
The strike against tunnels and caves reflects the ever-changing nature of the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.
During the years of intense fighting in Afghanistan, the United States dropped a handful of similar bombs to destroy caves believed to be used by the Taleban and Al-Qaeda, as well as to frighten troops dug into trenches who were not immediately killed.
The military offered a similar rationale Thursday for using the bomb - a successor to the "daisy cutter," a heavy bomb designed for the instant clearing of large sections of jungle in Vietnam.
ISIS fighters in Afghanistan "are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defence," said Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the US commander there, referring to improvised explosive devices.
"This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive."
Afghan security officials said their ground forces had advanced on the Tangi Asadkhel area of Achin but met firm resistance from Islamic State militants who were launching attacks from six mountainside tunnels. The Afghan forces retreated and asked for airstrikes.
"The ground forces could not do it, so the Americans bombed the area," said Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
The Afghan government was informed about the bombing, said Shahhussain Murtazawi, a spokesman for the president.
While the damage from the bombing, which occurred at night in a remote area, was unclear, the strike quickly brought backlash. Afghanistan's former president Hamid Karzai was among those who condemned it.
"This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons," Karzai wrote on Twitter. "It is upon us, Afghans, to stop the USA."
Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon was being given leeway to carry out strategy without being told what, exactly, the overarching strategy is.
"What they haven't been given is a lot of strategic guidance to work with," he said. "They can affect things, but without a guiding strategy, it's hard to be sure you're having the desired effect."
Tuesday's strike in Syria was requested by coalition allies on the ground near Tabqah, according to the US Central Command, which oversees combat operations in the Middle East. The fighters had "identified the target location as an ISIS fighting position," it said in a statement.
The military said the target location turned out to be a "fighting position" for the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been fighting ISIS alongside the United States.
"The coalition's deepest condolences go out to the members of the SDF and their families," Central Command said in the statement, calling the episode "tragic." Military officials said the cause was being investigated.
But the increased casualties in Syria "cannot be explained away simply by the increased tempo of the war," said Chris Woods, director of Airwars.
He noted that the number of airstrikes and targets hit actually fell slightly in March, but said his group's research indicated that civilian deaths had risen sixfold in Syria, with more than 350 killed last month alone.
"This indicates to us a possible loosening of US battlefield rules," he said, "which is placing civilians at greater risk of harm."