WASHINGTON — The US military on Thursday for the first time used its largest non-nuclear weapon, aptly nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, on a suspected ISIS tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan.
US forces dropped the 30-foot long, 21,000-pound bomb at 7:32 pm local time, in the country's Nangarhar province. The area is currently under the control of the local ISIS affiliate, known as ISIS-Khorsan (ISIS-K).
Two factors drove the decision to use the weapon, the largest conventional munition that the US has ever used in a combat theatre, the Pentagon said: that the target was underground tunnels and the enemy was ISIS.
"As ISIS-K's losses have mounted, they are using [improvised explosives], bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense," Gen. John W. Nicholson, the top commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement soon after the bomb's use. "This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K."
The US military said it deployed the weapon to destroy the complex, made up of a set of tunnels and caves less than a mile long, because it was the best way to destroy bunkers, explosives and the like, particularly in such a remote location, where the risk to civilians was low. By using such a strong bomb, US and Afghan troops were in the least amount of danger, the Pentagon said. The MOAB hit the same province where Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, 37, of the 7th Special Forces Group, was killed Saturday by small arms fire while conducting anti-ISIS operations, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
US Forces Afghanistan released a video of the explosion on Friday morning.
The US began a battle damage assessment of the strike but do not believe any civilians were killed. This was confirmed by the Afghan Defense Ministry early Friday, who said at least 36 militants had died, and their base and a large stash of weapons had been destroyed.
The Chief Executive of Afghanistan Dr. Abdullah Abdullah confirmed early Friday morning that the MOAB was "dropped in coordination" with the country's government, and that the government took "great care to avoid civilian casualties."
However, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he "vehemently and in the strongest words" condemned the use of the bomb, and said it amounted to the "most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons."
"Planning for this was in the works several weeks, if not months," a US defense official told BuzzFeed News. "The Taliban remains the priority, but we want ISIS to know they're not welcome."
The US decision to use the MOAB against ISIS, and not the Taliban, despite a 15-year effort to defeat the latter, raised questions about whether the US was dedicating too much attention to a terror group that only poses an ancillary threat to security in Afghanistan.
The use of such a weapon allowed the US and Afghan forces to “maintain momentum” in their ramped campaign against ISIS, Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, a spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan. In tests, the explosion from a MOAB — which actually stands for Massive Ordnance Aerial Blast — could reportedly be seen as far as 20 miles away.
The way the MOAB's explodes — in mid-air causing a massive shockwave — was ideal for use in this situation, a second US defense official told BuzzFeed News. “The MOAB is designed to create an overpressure and that is what is causes the tunnels to collapse,” he said.
The surprising use of the bomb less than 100 days into Trump's administration led some to see a political message beyond Afghanistan about the seriousness of administration's intent to use military force. The US is increasingly putting pressure on North Korea, Russia and Syria.
But US military officials insisted that the decision to use the MOAB was based on a battleground assessment, not a political one. "If this was a warning to anyone, it was to ISIS," the first defense official said.
The Pentagon said that Nicholson made the decision to actually use the weapon, as was his authority, in consultation with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, which is responsible for the war in Afghanistan. But White House spokesman Sean Spicer refused to say Thursday whether President Trump was aware of the decision to use the MOAB.
Trump himself, in brief comments afterwards in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, also declined to answer whether he authorized the use of the MOAB saying instead: “What I do is I authorize my military.”
ISIS-K has struggled to establish solid footing throughout Afghanistan, observers said. They have battled an emboldened Taliban, been crippled by internal fighting and cultural clashes with the Afghans, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told BuzzFeed News.
“Geographically, they don’t have a wide span” and are relegated largely to eastern Afghanistan, Gartenstein-Ross said.
The MOAB was developed in 2002 and was expected to be a part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the weapon is so big that it was nearly unusable in Iraq’s dense cities without killing civilians or causing massive unintended damage. The MOAB doesn’t fit into bombers, but rather is carried in the cargo area of a C-130.
It is unclear how long a MOAB has been deployed in Afghanistan, whether more of them are currently on the ground, or when Nicholson made the decision to actually use it.
The US is in the middle of review of the its strategy in the war in Afghanistan. During a Wednesday press conference, President Trump announced that Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, would travel to Afghanistan to review progress in that war.
Francis Whittaker contributed reporting to this article in London.