The Trump administration’s faith in hard power was on dramatic display in a far corner of the world Thursday.
The deployment of one of the largest non-nuclear bombs in the U.S. arsenal on an Islamic State tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan Thursday marks a new and dramatic step for U.S. forces in the country, sending a message likely to resonate far beyond the battlefields of the 16-year war there.
U.S. forces dropped a GBU-43, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs,” on the tunnel complex in Achin district in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, home to a jihadi faction known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan province, or ISIS-K. It was the first time the weapon has been used by American forces.
At 22,000 pounds, and with a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT, the bomb is the most powerful conventional weapon in the American armory, second only to the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal.
The strike comes nearly three years after Washington ended official combat operations in the country, but at a time when both the Taliban and the Islamic State faction have made gains in parts of the country.
National Security Adviser H.M. McMaster is heading to Afghanistan to assess the current state of U.S. operations in the country, Mr. Trump announced Wednesday. The Trump administration is expected to issue new guidance — including possible new troop deployments — in Afghanistan in the coming weeks.
Top military commanders, including U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel and Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, have both suggested more U.S. troops will be needed to back the besieged Afghan security forces.
The U.S. estimates 600 to 800 Islamic State fighters are present in Afghanistan, mostly in Nangarhar province close to the border with Pakistan.
Mr. Trump said Thursday his order to attack marked “a tremendous difference” between his leadership of the armed forces and the leadership of former President Barack Obama.
“Everybody knows exactly what happened. What I do is I authorize my military,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House, adding the Achin strike was “another very, very successful mission” by U.S. forces under his command.
‘Mother of all bombs’
The decision to use the devastating weapon was necessary given the increased threat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan province to Afghan, American and NATO forces in country, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said.
“As ISIS-K’s losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense,” Gen. Nicholson said.
“This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K,” he added, noting that U.S. forces will proceed with such operations “until ISIS-K is destroyed in Afghanistan.”
The U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did not immediately comment on the strikes. A spokesman for the provincial governor in Nangarhar told Voice of America that local officials had not been told of the bombing in advance.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been sharply critical of Mr. Ghani, slammed the attack on Twitter, saying, “I vehemently and in strongest words condemn the dropping of the latest weapon, the largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan by US military.
“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapon,” he added.
In Washington White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the bomb “a large, powerful and accurately delivered weapon” during Thursday’s briefing with reporters.
“The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously,” Mr. Spicer said, adding that defeating the group involves eliminating its “operational space.”
Mr. Trump, in his brief remarks, indicated he may be leaning toward supporting the Pentagon’s call for more troops as part of a new Afghan plan.
Mr. Trump said he has given U.S. military commanders “total authorization” to conduct operations against Islamic State in Afghanistan and the Middle East. “We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a [great] job as usual. … That’s why they’ve been so successful lately,” he said.
Since his stunning victory last November, President Trump and his national security team have been virtually silent on the Afghan mission, focusing their efforts and rhetoric on the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But with the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan province in eastern Afghanistan, combined with a resurgent Taliban, who now hold sway over more than half of the country, the clock is ticking on the Trump White House for a new plan for the nearly 8,400 U.S. service members still in the country.
Afghanistan Ambassador to the United States Hamdullah Mohib said his country’s security forces will not be ready to defeat extremist groups, without U.S. or NATO assistance, until 2020. By then “our security forces will be able to have what they need to carry on the fight on their own, for the most part,” he told USA Today.
Last year alone, nearly 30,000 Afghan soldiers were killed during combat operations against the Taliban and Islamic State, said Mr. Mohib.
Thursday’s bombing was only the latest indication of the increasingly tenuous situation in the country since U.S. forces handed combat operations to the Afghan army in 2014.
Nangarhar province, which sits along Afghanistan’s volatile border with Pakistan, was the site of the latest American casualty of the war. Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar was killed in a firefight with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan province members in the province days before the U.S. bombing.
Last month three U.S. soldiers were wounded at Camp Shorab in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province after an Afghan soldier opened fire on the Army unit advising local forces there.
Aside from targeting U.S. and allied forces, the Taliban and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan province are also responsible for a slew of suicide attacks in Kabul and elsewhere across Afghanistan. In March Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack against the Afghan military’s main hospital in Kabul, killing 30 and wounding 50 before Afghan security forces ended the siege in the heart of the Afghan capital.
In February Gen. Nicholson told Congress the war had devolved into a stalemate, requiring additional U.S. forces to break the standoff. “We have identified the requirement and the desire to advise below the corps levels. So these additional forces would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries,” he told lawmakers at the time.
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