On Thursday, US forces dropped the largest conventional bomb in its arsenal on an ISIS tunnel complex in Nangahar province, eastern Afghanistan. The GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast, aka the "Mother of All Bombs," or "MOAB," is a 21,600-pound bomb developed in 2003 during the first Iraq War. Its explosion is reportedly equivalent to 11 tons of TNT and creates a one-mile blast radius in every direction. As one of its creators stated at the time of its testing, "It is the largest guided bomb in the history of the world with a tremendous impact and detonation." This marks its first use in combat, and serves as a reminder that the longest war in US history rages on over 15 years after the US first invaded Afghanistan.
United States Forces-Afghanistan issued a statement Thursday morning confirming the strike, stating that it was "designed to minimize the risk of Afghan and U.S. Forces conducting clearing operations in the area while maximizing the destruction of ISIS-K fighters and facilities." General John W. Nicholson, Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, said, "As ISIS-K's losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense. This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our defensive against ISIS-K."
In Thursday morning's press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, "The GBU-43 is a large, powerful, and accurately delivered weapon. The US took all precautions against civilian casualties." When reporters asked for details, Spicer declined to comment further.
"The hard truth is…when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, over 90 percent of those killed or injured will be civilians," Iain Overton, the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, said in an e-mail. "And when explosive violence is used in lesser populated areas, at least 25 percent of those killed or injured will be civilians. In short, the bigger the blast you create, the more civilians will be killed."
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Military Times, "What [the MOAB] does is basically suck out all of the oxygen and lights the air on fire. It's a way to get into areas where conventional bombs can't reach."
Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute at Pace University, is worried that the military's decision could encourage other countries to develop or deploy similar weapons. Bolton also says it is unlikely that this sort of weapon could spare civilians. "It is difficult to imagine how it might be used in the kind of wars the US now fights—often in urban areas—without posing serious dangers to civilians," he says, "both as a result of its immediate wide area effect and the impact on vital infrastructure like electricity, water, sewers, schools, and health services."
While the number of civilian casualties and destruction to civilian property remains unknown, the strike comes amidst concerns that the Trump administration has loosened the rules of engagement that had sought to minimize civilian casualties for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. During the campaign, Trump promised that in the fight against ISIS he would "bomb the shit out of 'em" and pledged to "take out their families."
Last month, Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, the top US commander in Iraq, acknowledged that the coalition "probably had a role" in an airstrike in al-Jadida, Iraq, that killed as many as 240 Iraqi civilians. According to Airwars, an international airstrikes monitoring organization, March marked the third month in a row in which alleged US-led coalition civilian casualty events outnumbered those of Russia, and the number of US munitions dropped in the first three months of 2017 is up 59-percent over last year.
Of the MOAB, Overton adds, "That bomb cannot be targeted, it cannot be proportional and it cannot but kill civilians."
This story has been updated.