To blow up an Islamic State tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan, the United States has dropped one of its most powerful non-nuclear bombs — the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB, a 21,000-pound munition packing an explosive punch larger than almost anything else in the U.S. conventional arsenal.
According to the Defense Department, local Islamic State fighters had bolstered their subterranean defenses in the province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan. The MOAB, or GBU-43, was designed as a bunker buster, to allow U.S. forces to penetrate underground nuclear facilities like those in Iran — but made its debut in a more rustic setting.
“As ISIS-K’s losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense,” said General John W. Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon press release. “This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K.”
There are between 600 and 800 Islamic State fighters operating in Afghanistan, according to U.S. military estimates. Last month, Afghan troops backed up by American Special Forces advisors launched a major offensive against the group in Nangarhar, which resulted in the death of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar on April 8, the first U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year.
“Our goal is to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan in 2017,” U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul, told Foreign Policy.
He said the bomb was used against the large tunnel complex because it allowed the fighters “freedom of movement” to outmaneuver Afghan forces, and while U.S. forces haven’t been able to complete their assessment of what the strike might have achieved, “what we projected is that the bomb has the ability to collapse the tunnels” on top of any fighters inside.
CNN first reported the use of the bomb.
The news came the same day as a report that a coalition airstrike in Syria mistakenly killed 18 fighters backed by the United States.
The U.S. statement also said: “U.S. Forces took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike.” The U.S. military is reportedly currently assessing the damage from the bomb.
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- On the Trail of the Islamic State in Afghanistan: In Nangarhar province, Afghan troops are hunting a new and elusive enemy: the Islamic State fighters taking root in what were once Taliban strongholds.
The strike in Afghanistan is part of a huge increase in the American air war in Afghanistan that started under the Obama administration, but has increased even more sharply under President Donald Trump. In the first three months of 2017, American planes have dropped over 450 bombs on targets in Afghanistan, compared to about 1,300 for all of 2016, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. The number of strikes in the first two months of the Trump administration more than doubled the number taken in the same time period under the Obama administration.
Under Trump, the White House has allowed commanders on the ground far more leeway in in striking targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, a welcome change for military leaders who long bristled at the control the Obama administration exercised over small troop movements and sometimes individual targets.
The MOAB is also known as the “mother of all bombs.” It is not, however, the heaviest non-nuclear bomb. That distinction belongs to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, an even bigger bunker-buster that weighs 30,000 pounds.
This post has been updated.
Photo credit: USAF via Getty Images
Correction, April 13, 2017: Due to an editing error, the article originally misstated the explosive yield. It is larger than almost anything else in the U.S. conventional arsenal.