MOABs win battles but they don’t win wars

Friday saw global audiences awaking to news the US military had dropped a GBU-43/B MOAB — the largest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal — on a jihadist defensive position in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

The event marked the use of the weapon on the battlefield for the first time in history.

Nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs for its 11-tonne blast yield, the employment of the $16 million MOAB comes at a time of increasing violence in Nangarhar — in particular, the rise of a local affiliate of ISIS called Wilayah Khorasan, often referred to as ISIS-K.

Named for the historical region of Khorasan which features prominently in jihadist eschatology, ISIS-K’s recent activities in the Achin, Nazian, Dih Bala and Kot districts can be traced back to a steady flow of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants across the border into Nangarhar between 2010 and 2014.

Following a largely successful counterinsurgency offensive by the Pakistani military in early 2010, TTP fighters from the Orakzai Agency began moving across the Durand Line (the Afghan-Pakistan border) in large numbers.

An orange GBU-43 bomb in a large warehouse.

The US dropped a GBU-43B on a tunnel system housing IS fighters in a hillside on the western banks of the Mamand river just outside Achin district’s Asadkhal

While their initial presence in Nangarhar saw them arriving as ‘guests’ in the villages of their fellow Pashtuns, in early October 2014, six of these leaders declared the area to be an exclave province of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, breaking with the TTP and giving bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

By mid-2015, after a violent campaign against community rivals, including skirmishes against local Afghan Taliban elements, the newly formed ISIS-K began to grow exponentially.

Achin District in particular, as one of the largest opium poppy districts in Eastern Afghanistan, provided a logical base of operations for ISIS-K activities near the Durand Line – affording the militants a sluice of commercial and strategic opportunities for further expansion in Nangarhar.

Thursday’s strike comes in the middle of an Afghan government-led operation to clear ISIS-K from Achin, and despite CENTCOM’s description of the MOAB as “the right munition” for the obstacles which Afghan security forces were facing (as if the bomb’s use was unexceptional) there should be little doubt the strike shows a new preference for large displays of force in US-partner-led operations in Afghanistan.

At the same time, while there was initial speculation the MOAB-drop was Donald Trump’s way of “sending a message” to Syria and North Korea, what this event shows, perhaps more than anything else, is the President’s willingness to delegate decision-making to commanders on the ground, including the relaxation of top-down control of airpower.

While some might be concerned about a situation where military commanders have “total authorisation” to do as they please on operations, the knowledge that America’s generals are implementing “the commander’s intent” as opposed to, say, “the executive orders of the commander-in-chief” should come as a relief to many.

Indeed, with highly regarded military doyens like HR McMaster and James Mattis now crafting the US’s national security policy, one can see in Washington not so much the emergence of a ‘deep state’ but rather a ‘shallow state’ — an America where public servants now function as tugboats guiding the President’s very leaky ship through the shallows and away from a potential shipwreck.

That said, even if the US military is able to insulate defence policy from Mr Trump’s temperament, there is little indication the current offensive against ISIS-K in Afghanistan will be able to improve the local security environment in any substantive way.

Althought, at least at first glance, it seems there were no civilian casualties in the MOAB strike, some local reports have suggested civilian infrastructure up to four kilometres away may have been damaged by the MOAB.

Certainly, it should go without saying America’s use of airpower can sometimes be counterproductive and when one considers the last time the US made headlines in this part of Nangarhar was after the bombing of a wedding party which killed 47 civilians, it is not difficult to imagine how a large air strike can be used as a recruiting tool by insurgents.

More broadly, wresting the border areas of Afghanistan from the hands of insurgents may simply not be possible.

In many respects, ISIS-K is just the latest insurgent group to make use of the “friction of distance” offered by the remoteness of these areas — a symptom of the rocky and inhospitable terrain of Nangarhar as much as anything else.

Once a Mujahedin stronghold during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, in recent years the townships in the foothills of Nangarhar’s Spin Ghar mountains have also been ports of call for insurgents affiliated with the networks of Taliban leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

One thing these districts have never seen, however, is long-term control from a centralised government.

Home to Shinwari Pashtuns, a people who regard nation-states and the cities they spawn as habitats of “gund” (a Pashto term which describes inequality, disorder and the end of filial tribal bonds), the permanent incorporation of Nangarhar into any state seems to be, at the very least, historically unlikely.

Furthermore, that the ISIS-K tunnel complex might also have been a commandeered tunnel mine once used by locals to extract soapstone, should tell policymakers everything they need to know about insurgencies generally — they can only thrive in places where an accommodating environment — both infrastructural and cultural — for mounting a resistance already exists.

By now, one thing should be clear to everyone. Even if ISIS-K — America’s latest adversary in Nangarhar — is defeated, it seems unlikely Kabul, with or without the help of the US, will be able to permanently tame the borderlands of Nangarhar.

As coalition forces have surely learned after 16 years in Afghanistan — fighting in the Spin Ghar mountains is always uphill.

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