The deployment of a MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) bomb in Achin District of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan was the largest ever non-nuclear device used by the US military in combat operations. Air and drone strikes and targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a common feature of the US ‘War on Terror’. Key questions arise as to the legitimacy and ethics of these attacks and the circumstances under which the use of MOAB is militarily proportionate. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested that the attack was a cynical US military field test. Against a backdrop of escalating tensions between the US and North Korea it is important to consider the motivating factors for the attack. Was it a demonstration of US military capability to destroy fortified subterranean infrastructure, Afghan caves arguably providing a proxy for North Korean or Iranian underground nuclear facilities?
Given the extraordinary nature of the weapon it is debatable whether its target was of obvious corresponding value. In the region of 90 to 100 militants from Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) were killed. The cave system in which they were operating provided a base from which to plan and launch attacks against Afghan and US forces. The danger posed by ISIS-K is undoubtedly severe in some locales, but across Afghanistan is significantly lower than threats from a resurgent Taliban. The nature of Achin District and its proximity to Pakistan highlights the seemingly perennial problem of fragile and failed states, ungoverned spaces and porous borders. The free flow of Islamic State (IS) and other Jihadi fighters through the region remains troubling. As IS loses ground in Iraq and Syria a key challenge is to deny it opportunities to regroup or seize alternative ungoverned spaces. This perhaps gives some indication of the US interest in depleting ISIS-K capabilities in Afghanistan. Jihadist exploitation of fragile and failed states across the Maghreb, Indian Subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula highlights the scale of challenge in dealing with a widespread and fluid transnational terrorism threat.
Targeted killings, be they from air or drone strikes or special forces operations pose key policy challenges. Will the elimination of targets be strategically beneficial? Is there a likelihood that more effective or ruthless leaders will rise to take the place of those killed? Is there a danger of blowback, escalating tensions, damage to fragile relations and the possibility of drawing new enemies into conflict? There is a moral and ethical imperative to protect civilians and minimise human suffering. This must be counterbalanced with the risk of inaction and the possibility of enabling insurgents to develop capabilities, recruit and train operatives and further threaten civilian and military personnel. The degree to which this attack constitutes a targeted killing warrants consideration. Was its primary objective to eradicate high value ISIS-K leaders or (more tactically) eliminate a lower level operational threat?
Given the nature of the physical defences provided by the cave system, the use of a MOAB was perhaps merited. Similar ordnance (the 15,000lb Daisy Cutter bomb) was used in the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, during the failed attempt to kill Osama bin Laden and senior Al-Qaeda operatives as they escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan. As Peter Bergen writes, this provides “a useful reminder that very few military campaigns are won from the air.” Indeed, being deployed from a C130 Hercules transport aircraft, the use of MOAB demands air superiority (as its delivery platform could otherwise be an easy target for air-to-air or ground-to-air missiles). The weapon cannot be used close to civilian populations. The lesson that ISIS-K may take from the attack is that it is often safer to hide within and attack from behind civilian cover. Al-Qaeda undoubtedly learned this lesson after cruise missile attacks on its facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998.
The psychological impact of the use of such devastatingly powerful weapons is unlikely to prove fatal to the morale of ISIS-K and other regional insurgents. The efficacy of the action must therefore be considered in strategic as well as tactical terms. This necessitates demonstrating an enduring degradation of insurgent capability and corresponding reduction in attacks on Afghan and US forces. Afghan cave systems have been exploited in previous conflicts and were favoured by the Mujahedeen in the war against the Soviet Union. How quickly the cave system is recolonised by militants will be an interesting indicator of the strategic value and long term impact of the attack.
Pre-emptive air and drone strikes have been commonplace under the Bush and Obama regimes and are spreading out across Yemen, Somalia, Libya and other regions. Trump Doctrine so far shows a hardening edge. Whether he is engaged in reckless brinkmanship or skilful posturing with North Korea, Russia, Iran or China is debatable. The mood music from Pyongyang and Moscow suggests that US hegemony will be politically and even militarily challenged. Putin may feel that he has adequately demonstrated his military capabilities in Syria and has little further to gain. But the US and Russia have history and know the playbook of Cold War politics. Other relative newcomers may prove less predictable. The unintended consequences of escalating tensions with North Korea could be severe, particularly if not held in check by China and others with global influence.