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Questions over US decision to use giant bomb against IS in Afghanistan

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Kabul: US forces in Afghanistan have not yet assessed the impact of a massive strike on Islamic State militants in the eastern part of the country, a military spokesman says, raising questions about the already controversial decision to deploy a 10,000-kilogram bomb on the battlefield.

The Afghan Defence Ministry said three dozen fighters were killed in the attack, which used one of the largest non-nuclear bombs in the US arsenal, the GBU-43, against a network of tunnels and bunkers in the east.

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A Pentagon spokesman said its forces would not release an official statement on potential damage or casualties incurred from the strike, which was carried out in the Achin district of Nangahar province on Thursday night.

It was unclear why the Afghan government released casualty figures but US forces did not. For its part, the Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency denied the bombing caused casualties among the militants, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. Islamic State offered no evidence to support its claim.

The GBU-43/B MOAB bomb. The GBU-43/B MOAB bomb. Photo: AP

In Kabul, Navy Captain Bill Salvin, spokesman for US forces, said: “We are still conducting our assessment, and at this time have no evidence of civilian casualties as a result of the GBU-43 drop.”

Also on Friday, General John W. Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, defended the strike as “the right weapon against the right target”, and said it “achieved its intended purpose”, which was to remove the tunnel complex as an obstacle to US and Afghan forces on the battlefield.

US and Afghan troops went on the offensive against the local Islamic State branch in March, even as they continue to battle a Taliban insurgency in the rest of the country. US and Afghan officials have said their goal is to “eliminate” Islamic State from Afghanistan this year, but the Trump administration has not yet said if it plans to commit more troops to the fight. After 16 years of war, the US and NATO have struggled with how to wind down the conflict here.

But the Islamic State affiliate, which is based in Nangahar, emerged only recently, in the wake of the group declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Since then, it has staged deadly attacks on Afghan civilians, particularly in Kabul, but has largely failed to break out of its stronghold in the east. There, the group uses the proximity to Pakistan, which is also plagued by militancy, to build up weapons stockpiles and connect with other jihadists across the border. According to Nicholson, the group, known as Khorasan Province, is made up mostly of Pakistani and Uzbek militants, along with some Afghan fighters who defected from the Taliban.

A Still image from video released by the US Department of Defence shows the GBU-43 bomb strike. A Still image from video released by the US Department of Defence shows the GBU-43 bomb strike. Photo: AP

In Achin and other nearby districts, Islamic State has terrorised residents, beheading tribal elders, assassinating security officials and closing schools. Even local Taliban commanders fought with the group.

Many of the district’s roughly 100,000 residents had already fled, leaving few civilians in the area where the strike took place. No civilians were reported killed, according to US and Afghan officials. Still, some residents and those in neighbouring districts described widespread damage and hearing the blast miles away.

A rising mushroom cloud from a MOAB, from an Air Force video. A rising mushroom cloud from a MOAB, from an Air Force video. Photo: AP

“It was a powerful bomb; we felt it several kilometres away,” said Khair Mohammad Safi, police chief of the Achin district, where the strike took place. Mr Safi, who operates from a neighbouring district for security reasons, said he could see flames from the explosion.

“The wave caused by [the blast] was strong. There was a huge fire,” he said. “This was [Islamic State’s] main stronghold. They were annihilated. We needed such a bomb for this place.”

“The use of drones turned out to be very effective against Daesh” in Nangahar, said Aryan Youn, a lawmaker from the province, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “If that was the case, why did the United States want to use such a sophisticated and powerful bomb?”

Local residents, she said, are worried about the impact of the explosion on their health and farmland. Achin is a heavily agricultural district, where farmers grow wheat, cotton and, intermittently, the poppy crop that is used to make opium.

Washington Post

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