US drops 'mother of all bombs' in Afghanistan: Optics aside, what was the aim?

The big news emerging from the United States is that, as per reports, US forces dropped the military's largest non-nuclear bomb on what it said was an Islamic State (IS) cave complex in remote Afghanistan (Achin district in Nangarhar province) on Thursday. The bomb, GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), can reportedly obliterate everything within a 1,000-yard radius and is being termed as the "mother of all bombs".

But if the GBU-43/B – not the biggest in Pentagon’s non-nuclear arsenal – is being termed the "mother of all bombs", then perhaps the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator in the US arsenal, designed to destroy heavily fortified bunker complexes, can perhaps be termed as the "mother superior of all bombs", albeit it has never been tested beyond the laboratory stage. Though the GBU-57 is heavier (at 13,607 kg, it is 3,356 kg heavier than the GBU-43), the latter has a larger warhead and explosive yield.

Following the bombing, it was quite amusing to hear some analysts portraying it as a US signal to North Korea and even Pakistan – a naïve assessment, for these two countries must be laughing at such interpretations. North Korea is reportedly preparing for another nuclear test anyway – posing a direct challenge to the US on China’s behest.

Now let us examine the GBU-43/B bomb. This GPS-guided bomb was first tested in March 2002, just prior to the US invasion of Iraq. It weighs 10,251 kg, has a length of 30 plus feet, a diameter 40.5 inches, filling weight of 8,482 kg, and a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb is pictured in this undated handout photo. It was used in Afghanistan on Thursday. Reuters

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb is pictured in this undated handout photo. Reuters

The GBU-43/B was developed as a successor to the BLU-82, nicknamed ‘Daisy Cutter’, that the US used to clear wooded areas during the Vietnam War and in Iraq for mine clearance, as also a psychological weapon because of its shock and awe. The significant point to note is that the GBU-43/B is not a penetrator weapon but is primarily intended for soft targets covering extended areas – targets in a contained environment like a deep canyon or 'within' a cave system.

It is for this very reason that the US did not use the GBU-43/B when attacking the Tora Bora caves, when Osama bin Laden was suspected to be hiding there. When you have a cave system to clear, it is far better to launch multiple strikes through fighters/bombers with standoff weapons targeting the mouths of individual caves. Of course, in open areas, carpet-bombing, with its smaller ground impact, and aboveground detonating bombs are effective methods.

In this instance, a single GBU-43/B dropped over a cave system would have unlikely done much damage – as it is not a penetrative ammunition. Even if it did enter the cave system, the network paths inside the caves – generally dug at varied angels – would have minimised the blast impact.

The US said that the damage caused by the GBU-43/B strike was still being assessed. Satellite photos would have just shown large clouds of dust and smoke. Satellite images of the 59-Tomahawk missile strikes launched from USS Porter and USS Ross in the Mediterranean on 6 April on Syria’s Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, showed plenty damage as apparent from the air. But on the ground, only nine Syrian air force jets were hit, one air defence site partially destroyed and six personnel killed.

What did not find prominent coverage was that 34 of these 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were reportedly shot down by Syria, using Russian defence systems. This could perhaps be a reason for the US to demonstrate a show of force in Afghanistan, using the GBU-43/B, especially if the bomb in question was close to completing its shelf life.

But the media hype, suggesting that the entire IS cave system in Nangarhar has been wiped out, may be far from the actual truth. Not that the IS doesn’t need to be struck, the irony is that US intelligence had all along portrayed IS in Afghanistan as not much of a threat. Just last December, General John Nicholson, top US Commander in Afghanistan, had gone on record to say that, "IS sanctuary, that once was nine districts in Afghanistan, has been shrunk down to three". There are some 600-800 IS terrorists in Afghanistan as per US estimates.

The GBU-43/B, also known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, detonates during a test at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida. It was used in Afghanistan on Thursday. Reuters

The GBU-43/B, also known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, detonates during a test at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida. Reuters

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has vehemently, and in the strongest words, condemned the GBU-43/B strike in Afghanistan, saying, "This is not the war on terror but the inhumane and most brutal misuse of our country as testing grounds for new and dangerous weapons. What every Afghan has been asking since Bush launched his famous global war on terrorism and invaded Afghanistan is that while Afghanistan was ravaged through war, virtually nothing was done to attack and wipe out the hatcheries in Pakistan, other than some peripheral Predator attacks,"

"The same situation prevails even today. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reports have categorically stated that the majority of casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by the Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Haqqani Network, Hezb-e-Islami, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, IS etc, " Karzai said.

US intelligence also reveals that the Khorasan branch of IS is an "amalgamation of primarily disaffected and rebranded former Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members”. Apparently, they were cobbled together in the Peshawar region and have been pushed west into Afghanistan.

Also, Voice of America reported last year that Afghanistan officially told Pakistan that Hafiz Saeed, former LeT chief, is directing IS operations in Afghanistan. So, the so called IS in Afghanistan is obviously mixed with LeT and other Pakistani proxies like JeM etc. And, most importantly, they have a free run inside the Pakistani border, but the US never goes beyond talking of Haqqanis.

Hopefully, with the current situation deteriorating in Afghanistan, the US will not keep giving a free hand to Pakistan, and have some consistency in its policy within Afghanistan. Currently, some 300 Marines are reportedly headed to Helmand province; but, in the past, it was the total withdrawal of US troops from Helmand that gave the control and consolidation of Taliban in the area.

Again, two years back, when Taliban captured part of the city Kunduz and the US Special Forces (USSF) kept asking permission to help the Afghan National Army, there was no response from the hierarchy despite repeated requests. Ultimately, whatever games the Pentagon and the CIA want to play, it must be clearly acknowledged by the US that unless Pakistan is sorted out good and proper, the region will remain destabilised. China abetting Pakistani terrorism is turning the situation even more dangerous.

The author is veteran Lt Gen of Indian Army.

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2017 14:43:57 IST

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