Around 7:30pm local time, an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130 dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB, also known as the “Mother Of All Bombs”) on a network of caves and tunnels in the Achin District of Nangarhar Province that were allegedly infested with fighters from Islamic State Khurasan (ISIS-K). It marks the first use of the massive, 21,600-pound weapon in combat by American forces, and it made headlines around the world.
In some ways, the coverage is interesting and justified. The GBU-43/B is, in fact, the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Its first use on the battlefield against an ISIS affiliate is news in the purest sense. Yet it also felt in many ways like a publicity stunt that the media was all too happy to play up. Whether it’s Fox, CBS, or MSNBC, the networks love to roll out their retired-officers-turned-military-correspondants (some of whom are crackpots and idiots, like the disgraced Michael Flynn) and AMERICA AT WAR graphics while playing an ominous tune introducing the coverage. It makes for compelling television.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was exceptionally well prepared to speak on the subject at today’s press briefing (and did so without his typical idiotic gaffes), and was supported in his messaging by a Pentagon release that went into great detail about the ordnance used. Time may tell what damage was actually inflicted on the tunnel network, but given the remote location of the target and that it sounds like dangerous territory for American and allied ground troops to survey the results up close, little more other than a big explosion may be all that’s confirmed about the operation.
This does feel different than previous administrations’ press releases, though. Under Obama, many releases went out announcing the targeted killings of senior ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Taliban leaders. Whether you consider those executions via drone strike to be right or wrong, the results were pretty definitive: a dead leader of an enemy force can no longer organize or directly lead and educate his or her subordinates. Yet this felt more like a weapons test in the field being sold as a decisive strike against an enemy despite the lack of clear enemy casualties or quantifiable damage to their assets. It remains to be seen if that will change.
One can’t help but be amused at the obvious connection between Trump and the preoccupation with size he and his cohorts have once again demonstrated in very publicly celebrating the use of America’s largest conventional bomb. What is not amusing, however, is the possibility that this administration will be more concerned with creating a Hollywood action movie with big blasts that grab headlines than with formulating a coherent strategy to bring these conflicts to an acceptable resolution. More than a few sources have indicated Trump’s obsession with how he’s portrayed on TV and how media coverage responds to his actions. It’s entirely plausible that Trump’s measure of success for a military operation is the type of coverage news outlets provide it, and that’s an alarming prospect.
American men and women have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan since 2001. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS-K still hold sway over vast swaths of territory there. Some of those enemies operate in neighboring Pakistan, one of America’s most fraudulent allies and easily the most terrifying nuclear-armed nation behind North Korea due to its instability. Tremendous amounts of money have been spent on poorly conceived civil projects that have done little to improve the lives of Afghans or give them a viable alternative to the brutal radicalism that rules so much of their country. The U.S. desperately needs to identify plausible outcomes it desires in Afghanistan, and realistic ways to achieve them. If there are none, perhaps it’s time to reassess the ongoing commitment to fighting there and come up with a plan B.
Wars have never been won by body counts and spectacles alone. The showmanship may make for great headlines, but bigger and badder bombs will not be the difference-maker against the committed guerrilla fighters scattered across Afghanistan.