APR 14, 2017
When I read of the United States forces’ dropping of the second-largest non-nuclear explosive in their arsenal — the 21,000-pound GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) — in eastern Afghanistan, I am reminded of what John Paul Vann, the legendary Army officer and civilian adviser during the Vietnam War, said about the right way to fight guerrillas: “This is a political war, and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worse is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.” An Israeli general made a similar point to me after the defeat of the second intifada, saying, “Better to fight terror with an M-16 rather than an F-16.”
What they were saying, these veteran counterguerrilla fighters, is that war requires careful calibration in the application of violence, lest excessive firepower kill lots of innocents and drive more recruits into the enemy’s camp. That is precisely the problem that United States forces (and before them, the French) encountered in Vietnam and the Russians encountered in Afghanistan.
There is, to be sure, no evidence of any collateral damage from the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. Preliminary reporting indicates that the bomb may have killed 36 Islamic State militants and collapsed some tunnel networks. These are results to be cheered. And if North Korea or Iran is intimidated by this staggering display of firepower, so much the better.
But while it makes sense to loosen the overly restrictive rules of engagement imposed by the Obama administration, doing so carries risks. A reminder of that came in Syria, where a recent United States airstrike mistakenly killed 18 friendly Syrian fighters. This is not an anomaly; as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague, Micah Zenko, notes, both American airstrikes and civilian casualties have increased since the Trump administration took office.
President Trump, who campaigned on a promise to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State militants, will not be concerned about this; indeed, he said that the use of the MOAB was a “very, very successful mission,” and he is probably right, in the narrow tactical sense. But for the bigger strategic picture he would be well-advised to read the 2006 United States Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, co-authored by his own secretary of defense, which states: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.”
Beyond the possibility of collateral damage, there is a larger reason the use of the MOAB in Afghanistan should not be a cause for high-fives and unseemly celebration: It is a sign that the war in Afghanistan is not going well. The kind of war that Vann envisioned — employing small arms — is only possible if the threat is below a certain threshold. When the enemy becomes too powerful, as it did in Vietnam, then it becomes necessary to call in air and artillery strikes. That was not a sign of progress; it was a sign, in fact, that the security situation was spiraling out of control.
The situation in Afghanistan is, needless to say, not nearly as bad as it was in Vietnam during the 1960s. The Taliban are no Vietcong, and they are not supported by regular army units like the People’s Army of Vietnam. But nevertheless the trajectory in Afghanistan has been headed in the wrong direction since President Obama prematurely ended his surge and withdrew most American troops by 2016.
Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of the international military force in Afghanistan, noted in early February that the government is in control of only about two-thirds of the population. As the terrorism analyst Peter Bergen points out, this means that the Taliban either “control or contest” “a total of around 10 million people, which is more than the population that ISIS controlled in Syria and Iraq at the height of its power during the summer of 2014.”
The Taliban are bad enough. Just as worrisome is that the Islamic State is also making inroads in eastern Afghanistan. Indeed, the Islamic State is by now so well-established that the Afghan Army was unable to advance into its stronghold in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province. Hence the decision to drop the MOAB. But, as Mr. Bergen says, in 2001 the United States dropped 15,000-pound “Daisy Cutter” bombs on the nearby Tora Bora complex and still failed to kill Osama bin Laden and other senior leaders of Al Qaeda. Such enormous munitions may make a big blast, but they are not guaranteed to wipe out enemy fighters burrowing deep underground. And even if they kill insurgents, they will not kill the insurgency.
Victory in any counterinsurgency requires improving the effectiveness of the government and bringing 24/7 security to the countryside. In the case of Afghanistan, it is simply not possible to achieve those objectives with only 8,500 United States troops assisting the embattled Afghan security forces, which are suffering heavy casualties and losing ground. General Nicholson asked for a “few thousand” more advisers, and if the Trump administration wants to maintain even the existing, tenuous level of security, it will have to, at a minimum, meet his request. Bombs alone, no matter how big, won’t get the job done.