If the US military’s use of the gigantic bomb that destroyed the Islamic State’s cave complex in Afghanistan’s Spin Ghar mountains signifies anything, it is not the availability of superior weapon systems or firepower, it is Washington’s intention to remain the leading actor in the Afghan conflict, one that apparently thinks a military solution to the war, now in its 16th year, is still viable.
Amid differing claims being made with regard to the success of this operation, there has emerged a sense that the mere dropping of one bomb, even an 11-tonne one, doesn’t in itself constitute a well thought-out and coherent war strategy. In fact, it indicates there is no strategy at all.
What’s the MOAB damage?
While the declared objective of the bomb, famously known as MOAB – Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or GBU-43/B, the biggest in the US arsenal,was to remove tunnels which were an obstacle to US and Afghan forces on the battlefield,in the words of Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of US forces in Afghanistan, the use of the weapon contradicts his previous claims about inflicting heavy damage and many battlefield defeats on the group, usually known as ISIS. His latest assertions, on the contrary, tend to suggest that the previous damage was not sufficient to the use of ground forces to occupy and consolidate their victories.
However, even if we accept that MOAB did destroy tunnels and killed 92 combatants, it may not have had as big an impact on the group’s activities as the US says. For instance, the last major attack ISIS carried out on a military hospital in Kabul showed how well the group has organized itself; how deeply it is present in the urban areas and how much reliance it is placing on planning and intelligence gathering rather than mere rash attacks.
Instead of launching pitched battles, something the group successfully did in Iraq and Syria before being pushed back by conventional forces, ISIS is using a different strategy in Afghanistan—and it is that very strategy that makes MOAB the least effective weapon of choice for complete elimination of the group.
As such, with MOAB not being a right weapon of choice, the question is: why was the bomb used at this juncture?
The question becomes even more pertinent when we take into account the fact that recent months have seen the increased involvement of China and Russia in Afghanistan, followed by attempts on their part to chalk out a roadmap for peace.
While China is officially taking part in “counter-terror” operations, Russia is leading peace talks in Afghanistan—something that the US has been unable to do despite many efforts.
The fact that the primary motivation for Sino-Russian involvement is ISIS, not the Taliban, also speaks volumes about why the US might have decided to show off its seriousness, by using the huge bomb against ISIS. As such, being very much in line with the US’s missile strike in Syria, the use of MOAB could be considered more of a check move against Russian efforts to become a major player in the current endeavors to bring peace in Afghanistan.
Thus the US has sent a clear signal again -- this time to Russia, Pakistan, China, and maybe also Iran and North Korea.
However, what we need to keep in mind is that even though US does not want to pull out its military from Afghanistan, it is evident that the Americans are also not in a position to dominate the country under any of its planted governments even by reapplying the earlier failed method of a military surge.
While the US has so far not reflected any clear strategy either for the Middle East or Afghanistan,the attack indicates that the US is not going to allow Russia any space to maneuver as the latter has done in Syria, effectively preventing Washington from steering a course of action to its own desired direction.
A prelude to the arrival of more troops?
Notwithstanding the official narrative that tends to portray MOAB as a ‘game-changer’, the other important question is: what will happen when it becomes clear, yet again, that airpower is not enough to tackle an enemy that is in the cities, and that it requires more ground forces? The destruction of the tunnel complex and the killing of at least some ISIS command personnel in isolated mountains still leaves a growing force throughout the country.
There are about 8,500 US troops in Afghanistan. Will Trump drag the US deeper into this endless war by granting Nicholson’s request for several thousand more troops?While sending more troops will add more complexity to the war, this cannot be done unless the US formulates a new strategy and clearly stipulates its objectives.
Trump told reporters that this bombing was “another very, very successful mission,” but when asked about long-term strategy he remained elusive and deflected other questions. What is appearing on the horizon and what this particular attack and the subsequent aerial bombing have indicated is that behind the Trump administration’s decision to give more “freedom of action” to its generals in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) lies the first signal for what is to come, regardless of the human cost and regardless of the fact that the Taliban are still out there and controlling swathes of the Afghan territory that roughly equals a small sized but powerful state.
In this context, what the Trump administration needs is a strategy rather than a mere show of superior firepower. That hasn’t won the US the war after 16 years – having dropped so-called “daisy cutter” bombs that were only slightly smaller on the Tora Bora tunnel complex in a vain attempt to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2002, and it still won’t yield a favorable result, even with a bomb of such a magnitude as the MOAB. Afghanistan’s agony looks set to continue.