The death toll from America’s largest non-nuclear bomb has nearly tripled, with Afghan officials saying on Saturday some 90 Islamic State fighters died when the blast smashed their mountain hideout, as U.S.-led forces began cleanup operations.
Dubbed the “Mother Of All Bombs,” the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb was unleashed in combat for the first time on Thursday, hitting I.S. positions in a remote, rugged area of eastern Nangarhar province. The unprecedented attack triggered global shockwaves, with some condemning the use of Afghanistan as what they called a testing ground for the weapon, and against a militant group that is not considered a threat as big as the resurgent Taliban.
The bomb smashed the I.S.’s remote mountain hideouts, a tunnel-and-cave complex that had been mined against conventional ground attacks, engulfing the remote area in a huge mushroom cloud and towering flames. “At least 92 Daesh fighters were killed in the bombing,” said Achin district governor Esmail Shinwari on Saturday. Nangarhar provincial spokesman Attaullah Khogyani gave a toll of 90, far higher than the initial toll of 36 I.S. fighters given by Afghan officials.
Shinwari insisted there were “no military and civilian casualties at all,” adding that Afghan commandos and American troops are carrying out cleanup operations in the area.
Security experts say I.S. had built their redoubts close to civilian homes, but the government said thousands of local families had already fled the area in recent months of fighting. The massive bomb was dropped after fighting intensified over the past week and U.S.-backed ground forces struggled to advance on the area. An American Special Forces soldier was killed last Saturday in Nangarhar while conducting anti-I.S. operations.
“The enemy had created bunkers, tunnels and extensive mine fields, and this weapon was used to reduce those obstacles so that we could continue our offensive in Nangarhar,” General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said on Friday.
President Ashraf Ghani threw his support behind the bombardment, saying it was “designed to support the efforts of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and U.S. forces conducting clearance operations in the region.” The bombing came only a week after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack, and as China warned of the potential for conflict amid rising U.S. tensions with North Korea.
Trump hailed the mission in Achin district as “very, very successful.” But some analysts called the action “disproportionate.”
“The Trump administration made a lot of noise with this bomb, but the general state of play on the ground remains the same: The Taliban continues to wage a formidable and ferocious insurgency. ISIS, by comparison, is a sideshow,” Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington told AFP. “Still, from a strategic standpoint, there is an unsettling takeaway here: The U.S. pulled off a huge shock and awe mission against an enemy that isn’t even the top threat to the U.S. in Afghanistan. The Taliban continues to sit pretty.”
The Taliban, a much bigger insurgent group, is expected to soon announce the start of this year’s fighting season.
I.S., notorious for its reign of terror in Syria and Iraq, has made inroads into Afghanistan in recent years, attracting disaffected members of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban as well as Uzbek Islamists. But the group has been steadily losing ground in the face of heavy pressure both from U.S. airstrikes and a ground offensive led by Afghan forces.