What did the ‘monster of all bombs’ target in Afghanistan?

The bomb was launched, possibly from a customised USAF C-130 Hercules aircraft, to target a maze of caves in and around Achin.

 MOAB, Englin, Afghanistan
Source: Wikipedia

On the evening of 13 April, the United States deployed for the first time in a combat zone its GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB) in an active combat zone, making the weapon the third highest yield explosive ever used by any military. US Central Command announced the use of the MOAB, which was first cleared for operational use by the Obama administration, as being successful in “destroying” a maze of underground caves in the ISIS stronghold in Nangarhar, in Afghanistan’s troubled Achin province.

This strike orchestrated under President Donald Trump’s ambit could have significant implications for Afghanistan, a country embroiled in an ‘infinity war’ since the 1990s when the Taliban took over and installed a pariah state. Later on, the US campaign post 9/11 to dislodge the Taliban, an entity US helped create to take on the former Soviet Union, saw controlled success with a pro-West government developed under the leadership of former president Hamid Karzai. However, despite initial success against the Taliban, the US and its allies have started to lose ground yet again, with the terror organisation making small yet steady comebacks in the country, specifically in and around Helmand province in the south.

However, the launch of the MOAB that has captured global headlines, and perhaps more importantly, catapulted Afghanistan’s precarious security situation back into American prime time headlines has a different target than the Taliban. The bomb was launched, possibly from a customised USAF C-130 Hercules aircraft, to target a maze of caves in and around Achin used by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), ISIS’s loosely attached Afghanistan chapter which was launched in 2015 under the watchful eyes of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who was killed last year in a drone strike in Aleppo, Syria.

America’s Afghanistan policy is still up for deciphering under the new administration, despite use of the MOAB. All eyes are now on Lt Gen H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s second attempt at filling the coveted National Security Advisor position after the resignation of former-NSA Michael Flynn. McMaster is on his first tour of Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi, with Afghanistan’s security being in jeopardy and both Pakistan and India being major influences and partners for the country’s future, the former via spreading terrorism and latter via funding developmental projects in the country.

The ISKP, however, is an entity punching above its weight in the threat perceptions that make up Afghanistan’s security discourse. While the Taliban still remains the main challenge to the government in Kabul by a long mile, the attack on ISKP by the US had multiple reasons, very few of them having much to do with the terror group’s validity in itself. The strike, as per reports, killed nearly 100 jihadists, including high-ranking ISKP leaders. However, the question that needs to be asked is, what exactly is the ISKP in Afghanistan and what warranted such a military strike by Washington DC?

The answer to the origins of ISKP is not surprising. “The IS fighters who pioneered the Khorasan franchise of the IS were Pakistani militants who had long been settled in the southeastern districts of Nangarhar, in the Spin Ghar mountains or its foothills, bordering the tribal agencies on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line,” explains researcher Borhan Osman in a paper published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), a Kabul based think tank.

Most of the fighters in the ISKP brand are former Pakistan Taliban (TTP) members, who had been fleeing military operations being conducted by the Pakistani armed forces in the country’s tribal areas such as FATA, Waziristan and so on. These jihadists arrived into the Achin province and Nazian under the cover of being refugees, and were initially settled by local villages with a sympathetic outlook towards them for being Pashtuns. These “refugees” used this situation to look for new avenues to go back to their premiere career paths, terrorism, and started to develop an environment and infrastructure (madrasas and so on) for the same.

The ISKP is another brand in the convoluted yet prevailing cottage industry of Afghanistan’s jihadist complex, where terrorism is seen by many fighters more with a career lens than an ideological or political one, unlike the Taliban. Like any other career, jihadists look for a better paying role, and allegiance to a group often is not of the primary concern in this theatre of war. The role of the ISKP was to take up brutal violence in the Achin area of Afghanistan; however, the group never gained enough popularity or human strength to expand its reach. As per available research, not more than 1,400 ISKP fighters exist, and no major commanders from central Asia who have fought in either Syria or Iraq had tried to take control of ISKP’s operations despite the panache with which Adnani launched the franchise. The ISKP gained prominence with the ISIS branding; however, operationally they still remain smaller than even some tribal leaders in the region. These leaders, in fact, used the likes of ISKP to launch violence on other tribal leaders over territory, prominence, and regional power.

The launch of the MOAB on ISKP and Achin had more than one aim, and perhaps had a message for North Korea by the Trump administration, another, more complex theatre of geopolitical tensions which involves nuclear weapons. By orchestrating a strike on the ISKP at this magnitude, the United States administration may have signaled its intent to Pyongyang, showcasing the strength of its non-nuclear strike capability as well. However, in Afghanistan, it is the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus that remains in cahoots with the Afghan jihadist complex that is the single biggest threat to not just Afghanistan’s future, but the extended region’s stability as well. New Delhi should make clear to NSA McMaster of the increasing instability in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s resurgence, and for America to not forget that its Afghanistan project also cost more than 2,300 US military deaths. Leaving the country without a valid conclusion after waging a war for 15 years is not an option that the Trump administration should entertain.

This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

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