In its second major display of military might in one week, the US dropped its most powerful non-nuclear bomb on ISIS positions in a remote part of Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said 36 militants were killed in the strike in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistan border. The US military previously estimated ISIS had 600 to 800 fighters operating in the area.
On Thursday night, a GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast bomb (MOAB), capable of destroying an area equivalent to nine city blocks, was dropped on a network of fortified underground tunnels ISIS had been using to stage attacks on government forces.
The blast, from the weapon dubbed the “mother of all bombs,” destroyed three underground tunnels as well as weapons and ammunition, but no civilians were hurt, said an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman.
A local resident living around two kilometers (1.5 miles) from the blast told Agency he heard an “extremely loud boom that smashed the windows of our house.”
“We were all scared and my children and my wife were crying. We thought it had happened right in front of our house,” he said.
US President Donald Trump said Thursday the Afghanistan bombing was “another successful job.”
The airstrike follows last week’s surprise missile strike on a Syrian airfield, in the first US military action against the Syrian regime in the six years of conflict there.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Hamdullah Mohib, said the colossal MOAB was dropped after fighting had intensified over the last week. US and Afghan forces had been unable to advance because ISIS — which has expanded into Afghanistan in recent years — had mined the area with explosives.
Locals told Agency that more than 3,000 families had fled the district in the past year or so since the militant group established its presence.
One man, who did not want to give his name for fear of ISIS retaliation, said there were no civilians left in the area the group controlled.
The region the MOAB struck butts up against the porous Pakistan border. The rocky landscape is dotted with caves and defensive tunnels, making it easy to hold and hard to attack, according to (NEWS AGENCY) International’s diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, who has previously reported from the Afghan mountains.
On Twitter, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani approved of the strike, saying it was “designed to support the efforts of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and US forces … conducting clearance operations in the region.”
“Precautions were taken to avoid civilian casualties with this air strike,” Ghani said.
Multiple Afghan officials previously told Agency they had no information about the bombing before it happened. A spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Defense later said the bombing was carried out “in coordination” with Afghan military forces.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington is “working with the government of Afghanistan and our partners in the region in order to deny any terrorist organization — that includes al Qaeda as well — a safe haven or any kind of material support on the ground.”
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai however denounced the use of the weapon.
“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as a testing ground for new and dangerous weapons,” he said on Twitter.
But Trump’s administration has come under increasing pressure over three US-led strikes in the Middle East in the past month that have killed civilians or allies.
On Tuesday, the US-led coalition in Syria killed 18 of its own allies from the Syrian Democratic Forces, in what it described as a misdirected airstrike. The US is also investigating two of its own strikes in Iraq and Syria that Iraqi officials and activists say killed dozens of civilians.
While the war in Afghanistan has largely slipped from public consciousness in the US, replaced by the conflict in Syria and ongoing tensions over North Korea, there are still around 8,400 US troops in the country engaged in counter terrorism operations.
Those troops are separate to a wider NATO-led effort to train, advise and assist the Afghan army and police force.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, General John Nicholson warned of a stalemate in the country. He told US lawmakers the current troop level was insufficient and there was a “shortfall of a few thousand” advisers to train the Afghans.
According to Agency, “the war in Afghanistan is at its lowest point for the Afghans and their American allies since the Taliban were overthrown in the months after 9/11.”
The Taliban “control or contest” about a third of the population of the country, Bergen said, citing senior US military officials. That’s around 10 million people — more than the population ISIS controlled in Syria and Iraq at the height of its power during the summer of 2014, he added.