Afghanistan’s Defence Ministry confirmed on Friday that at least 36 Islamic State fighters were killed when the United States dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Achin district, near the country’s eastern frontier, a day ago. The US said the bomb was aimed at a cave system used by the terror operatives in the area.
Picture the weapon unleashed by the United States. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb is known by many names – the “bunker buster”, the “demolition bomb”, and most popularly, the “Mother of All Bombs”. Saddam Hussein’s promise to deliver the “mother of all battles” has been adapted with gusto by the armies he fought: “mother of all retreats”, the “mother of all blowouts”, “the mother of all Marine operations”, suggesting epic proportions and a hint of glee.
The Mother of All Bombs was developed in 2002 and first tested in 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, but never used until now. It is 30 feet long, weighs 21,600 pounds and can carry 18,700 pounds of explosives. Its thin casing makes it a demolition bomb, which means it can create a massive surface blast. The impact of the bomb can reportedly stretch a mile in every direction. And it is called the bunker buster because it is especially effective for destroying underground structures.
“It explodes above the ground,” said military analyst James “Spider” Marks, speaking to CNN. “At a distance depending on what type of a shape and blast you want to have. And as described, it’s a concussive blast, so everybody underneath that thing is either obliterated, ears are bleeding, or they’re completely destroyed.”
Another effect of the bomb is said to be the psychological impact of witnessing such a massive blast.
According to the Afghan Defence Ministry, no civilians were killed. The United States is also said to have carried out the attack because it believed there were no civilians in the area, and this was the most efficient way of shrinking “operational space” for the Islamic State without risking the lives of their own combatants.
Yet, former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai took to Twitter to condemn the attack. The strike was a “brutal misuse” of Afghanistan as a “testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”, he posted.
The ‘testing ground’
Now picture the “testing ground”, that blankness apparently shorn of civilian presence but teeming with enemy fighters.
Achin district was a stronghold of the Islamic State. It is close to the Durand Line, that contested border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to a report by an Afghan news network, families of Da’esh, or Islamic State, fighters filtered into the region from Pakistan, to escape Islamabad’s military crackdown in Orakzai and Khyber agencies.
The Pakistani militants then forged ties with the Taliban and residents living in the area. But when more Salafi fighters started joining their group, it caused a rift with the Taliban. The report also speaks of atrocities committed by the fighters: setting off bombs, killing tribal elders, beheading residents on charges of having ties with the Taliban, abducting hundreds. Thousands of people were displaced in the fighting between Afghan government forces and the Islamic State.
Achin district has a population of 150,000 people, according to the report. Most live off the land, growing maize, wheat, potatoes, onions and other crops. Before the Islamic State arrived, residents mined the caves for soapstone, according to Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist.
Going by the reports on the Mother of All Bombs, some of these lands and livelihoods have probably been destroyed forever. Sarwary also said that shrapnel had travelled far and houses in surrounding areas were damaged.
A new red line?
Back in 2003, even the Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defence, sent the Mother of All Bombs for a formal review of legal justification for combat use. The report, written by one Thomas J Fiscus, major general, US Air Force, concluded that the weapon did not violate the laws of armed conflict.
First, because it did not cause “unnecessary suffering”, according to the report:
“The critical factor is whether the suffering is needless or disproportionate to the military advantage secured by the weapon, not the degree of suffering itself. The MOAB weapon kills by way of blast or fragmentation. Blast and fragmentation are historic and common anti-personnel effects in lawful military weapons. There are no components that would cause unnecessary suffering.”
The psychological effects are not deemed unnecessary either.
Second, because it was a “discriminate” weapon that could hit specific targets.
But if a bomb destroys everything for thousands of feet, can it really be called discriminate? And is obliterating enemy combatants any more humane than using chemical weapons, which the laws of war do not allow? The United States needs to put up its own military and its methods for closer scrutiny before it lays down red lines for others.