Strategic intent and implications aside, the decision to use the United States’ largest non-nuclear bomb against the Afghani based associates of ISIS on 13 April has garnered enormous attention. For the general public, there emerged an initial confusion surrounding the target of the attack, given the lack of media focus on Afghanistan since President Trump has assumed office. But irrespective of how much influence the President had (or didn’t have) over making the call, the decision to deploy the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ (or formally, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast or MOAB) reinforces the Trump narrative. The question remains as to whether Trump himself was the instigator of the mission, or whether he is simply attributing the act and the subsequent public response to develop his own profile as a muscular leader in the post-Obama era.
The Trump administration's 'America First' foreign policy agenda has been very clear in its rhetoric, only to be contradicted by its delivery. This stands true particularly for his supporters, who expected an isolationist approach, and have thus far witnessed anything but.
All the while, the intention to escalate military force in Afghanistan has been largely absent from public discourse. Nonetheless, whilst the US deposed of the Taliban regime 15 years ago, President Trump has inherited an Afghanistan that remains plagued by a destructively complex political environment. The nation continues to be challenged by widespread corruption and crime, which is compounded by rampant violent terrorism and frayed intra-regional relations.
The physical target of the mission on 13 April was a network of tunnels and caves used by Islamic State militants. In a statement following the strike, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer commented that the tunnel system was used by IS fighters ‘to move around freely, making it easy for them to target US military advisors and Afghan forces in the area’. According to the local defence ministry, the bomb was initially claimed to have killed 36 Islamic State combatants. According to several sources, however, this figure has since risen to a death toll of 94.
To be clear, President Trump has not said whether he had personally approved or ordered the operation. Pentagon officials have since said that the US military commander in Afghanistan who ordered the strike did not require the president’s approval. Officials have, accordingly, insisted that the decision was based on a balanced assessment of military needs and not a result of wider political considerations.
The issue of authorisation has been widely debated in the aftermath of this event. Meanwhile, the fact remains that the decision to use the GBU-43/B bomb has since come to suit the Trump agenda in several respects, conveniently bolstered by widespread public interest in the strike.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, targeting Islamic State’s mobility aligns well with Trump’s strong, antagonistic rhetoric towards the Islamic State, which he has repeatedly promised to defeat. Sean Spicer re-emphasised this in the recent press briefing, saying ‘The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously and in order to defeat the group we must deny them operational space. Which we did’.
Furthermore, the use of the MOAB supports Trump’s ambition to execute a strong foreign policy agenda in the wake of President Obama’s supposed “soft” approach. ‘We have given them total authorization’, President Trump said, ‘…and frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately’.
It’s worth highlighting the contradictions between this current rhetoric and Trump’s campaign promises, in which he spoke about not being so involved overseas, aside from destroying IS. In fact, a lot of the Trump’s base is upset at his actions in Afghanistan and Syria.
The strike also bolsters the current administration’s ‘America First’ position at a more individual level. Just a week prior to the launch, an American soldier was killed in eastern Afghanistan—in the same region in which the bomb was deployed—during a joint operation with local forces against Islamic States associates.
Many commentators have argued that the launch was, in fact, a strategic move intended to send a message to other foreign enemies, namely North Korea and Syria. Administration officials have indirectly supported this presumption. ‘Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan’, Vice-President Mike Pence said during his recent to South Korea. He followed this comment by warning, ‘North Korea would do well not to test his resolve of the strength of the armed forces of the United States’.
It’s easy to point to the many ways in which this strike aligns with the Trump’s rhetoric. But what observers must be cautious of is not to disparage the administration for this particular instance of military escalation without deeper consideration. Much of the commentary to emerge from the strike has focused on the government’s use of the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ as a sign of chaos to come. What has perhaps been overlooked is that in 2016, the US reportedly deployed over 26,000 bombs on foreign targets. This figure equates to around 70 per day. Thus, whilst the use of this particular weapon is unprecedented, this military mission cannot be interpreted as a hasty nor provocative measure merely because of the administration that authorised it.
Chloe Meyer is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.