U.S. Unleashes ‘Mother of All Bombs’—and a Press Release

It’s the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal. And after years of sitting on the shelf, the Pentagon just unleashed it on Afghanistan.

Department of Defense

U.S. Special Operations Forces dropped one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan on April 13, defense officials told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

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The bombing could mark a shocking escalation of America's war in Afghanistan—one that places more civilians in greater danger than ever before, though military officials insist they wouldn't have acted if they had spotted civilians nearby.

American forces were trying to root out deeply entrenched ISIS fighters when a U.S. Air Force MC-130 commando transport dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast munition in Achin district in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan at 7:32 in the evening, local time.

ISIS has an estimated 600 to 800 fighters in Afghanistan, many of them in Achin, according to Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump, who said the strike was aimed at limiting their freedom of movement.

One U.S. commando died in a firefight in the same district just a few days ago, on April 8, but officials say this was no act of retribution.

"This operation was planned prior to the loss of a 7th Group Green Beret last week,” U.S. military spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Salvin explained from Kabul.

Pentagon officials say the generals have had the authority to launch whatever ordnance they had in theatre against ISIS since January last year, but President Donald Trump's comfort level with delegating new decision-making on counterterrorism strikes surely played into their thinking. General John “Mick” Nicholson ordered the weapon during the Obama Administration to use during Afghan’s fierce spring and summer “fighting season”, but it was only delivered in January this year, Salvin said.

While he may have had the authority to drop the bomb, it’s likely he notified commanders above him that he was about to use the munition, but it’s not clear how high that went. “Appropriate notifications were made,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas emailed emphatically to the The Daily Beast. “This does not reflect a new policy or authority."

CNN, which was among the first to report the strike, assured it viewers that military officials in Afghanistan “felt that they could use this [MOAB] without risking civilian casualties in the area.”

U.S. officials insisted that they took measures to protect the innocent. “There was an extensive planning process to ensure there were no civilians in the area,” which includes surveillance long before the target was hit, Salvin said. But as the target was a cave structure, that seems hard to ascertain with 100 percent certainty.

The Massive Ordnance Air Blast munition is 30 feet long and weighs more than 11 tons. It’s a fuel-air bomb, meaning it works by spreading a cloud of flammable gas and then igniting it. U.S. troops dropped older-style fuel-air bombs during the Vietnam War in order to flatten large areas of forest for helicopter landing zones, and the Bush administration dropped at least one “daisy cutters”—a MOAB precursor—on al Qaeda at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, in an attempt to flush out Osama bin Laden and his fighters from their cave complex.

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As the gas can spread into bunkers and even underground, a fuel-air weapon can also collapse fortifications and tunnel networks over a radius of potentially hundreds of yards. "In its destructive capability, it is comparable to low-yield nuclear munitions,” one Russian military scientist wrote in the Russian trade journal Military Knowledge.

The Pentagon rushed development of the MOAB—also known as the “Mother of All Bombs”—in early 2003 in order for the weapon to be ready for the invasion of Iraq. But the MOABs proved either unnecessary or too risky to use in Iraq’s mostly densely populated areas—they remained in storage until yesterday.

David Hambling, an independent munitions expert, said that in dropping MOAB, the military was hoping for “a combination of psychological and kinetic effects.”

“It’s not the obvious choice of weapon to destroy a cave complex,” Hambling told The Daily Beast. “It may generate a massive over-pressure causing lethal effects to some depth, but is much less obvious than weapons like the smaller thermobaric BLU-128, which is designed to take out tunnels and caves with blast.”

The Pentagon is certainly playing up the MOAB’s fearsome power. Within hours of the bombing, the Defense Department had posted a press release describing the attack and its alleged effect on ISIS positions. “This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive,” Gen. Nicholson said in the statement.

“Of 12,000 bombs U.S. dropped on Afghanistan in past 5 yrs, MOAB the first to be honored with its own press release (posted w/in hours),” the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko quipped on Twitter.

The huge bombing could provoke a backlash. After years of limiting air strikes in order to minimize civilian casualties, Gen. Nicholson has seemingly made good on Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS.

The Pentagon is hitting suspected militants faster and with less vetting by the White House than under the Obama administration. U.S. air strikes reportedly killed hundreds of civilians in Mosul in Iraq in March 2017, though Iraqi military officials blamed the casualties on ISIS explosives they say were stored in or near the target in the densely packed city. Trump authorized U.S. troops in Somalia to call in air strikes without asking permission from officials in Washington, D.C.

A Pentagon official told The Daily Beast that Thursday’s strike had nothing to do with the Trump administration expanding its campaign against ISIS, but was the commander’s call. The official, who was briefed on the operation, spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss military strategy.

“Had there been any civilians present, there would not have been a strike,” CENTCOM spokesman Col. Thomas emailed, adding that there was “comprehensive” surveillance of the target “before the strike.”

At least one peace advocate said he is unconvinced. “Was it really necessary to drop the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan?” Zeshan Hamid, president of the New York-based Council on Pakistan-U.S. Relations, asked The Daily Beast.

“I feel there is nothing better than having a peaceful Afghanistan free of terrorist for both Pakistan and America, however, my fear is that something of this nature will cause many civilian casualties,” Hamid added.

In deploying the giant fuel-air bomb, the United States rejoins a notorious club that currently also includes Russia, Iraq, and Syria. After surrendering most of its purpose-made chemical weapons beginning in 2013, the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad switched to using fuel-air weapons against civilians.

In September 2013, a regime warplane dropped a fuel-air bomb on a school in Ar Raqqa, killing 14 people including 12 children. “Some of the bodies were apparently thrown against the courtyard wall, which suggests they were forced there by the blast wind,” a Human Rights Watch researcher reported.

Russia developed a ground-launched fuel-air rocket that blasted militants and civilians alike in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Iraq bought copies of the devastating weapon and has deployed it in the current war on ISIS.

In a 2000 report on Russian fuel-air munitions, Human Rights Watch pointed out that “the nature of [fuel-air] explosions makes it virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect.”

Even the impression that U.S. forces are endangering civilians risks alienating the people American troops rely on for support in Afghanistan. “The greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told 60 Minutes in 2009.

Votel echoed McChrystal’s sentiments in 2016, after a U.S. warplane mistakenly fired on a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, killing 42 patients and medical personnel. “I can assure you that we are committed to learning from this tragedy and minimizing the risk of civilian casualties during future combat operations,” Votel said.

Deploying one of the world’s most powerful munitions is inconsistent with that assurance, Hamid said. “Dropping bombs will not be the answer to a war that has gone on for over a decade. The answer is collaborative intelligence operations and protection of civilians at all costs.”