No, Dropping a MOAB on ISIS in Afghanistan Doesn't Make Surge 2.0 a Good Idea
The U.S. military dropped the 21,000-pound GBU-43, or MOAB, on a tunnel complex out of which ISIS operated, U.S. Central Command announced today, giving proponents of a renewed surge in Afghanistan new hope that President Trump will follow that course. But another escalation in the war in Afghanistan remains a bad idea—there's very little, if anything, the U.S. can do in its 16th year of war that it couldn't accomplish in the first 15, even if the bombs used are getting bigger.
The GBU-43, called the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, bomb, is the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal and was developed for the Iraq war (of course it was) but never used there. The action in Afghanistan was the first time the bomb has been used in the battlefield—it was tested in 2003. Its creator, Albert Weimorts, previously designed a 5,000-pound bomb, the GBU-28, for the First Gulf War. Planning for today's strike was in the works for months, and dated back to the Obama administration, according to CBS News.
Donald Trump is the fifth consecutive U.S. president to serve as commander-in-chief while the U.S. military is engaged in Iraq, and the fourth consecutive U.S. president to preside over military operations in Afghanistan.
President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in 1998. President George W. Bush sent the U.S. military into Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda.
President Barack Obama campaigned for president in 2008 arguing Afghanistan was a war ignored because of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq a year after invading Afghanistan, and in 2012 he campaigned on bringing the war in Afghanistan to a close.
Yet five years after Obama ran a campaign on the promise that the Afghanistan war was already ending, the U.S. remains there. The Trump administration's decision to drop a MOAB on ISIS in Afghanistan has more symbolic significance than any other. As Jesse Walker noted last month, the nearly 16-year-long Afghanistan war "does sometimes feel like one of those couch-crushing pachyderms we've all quietly agreed not to discuss"—it's a forever war already forgotten.
The attention-grabbing MOAB, nicknamed the "Mother of All Bombs" and described in most headlines today as America's "largest non-nuclear bomb" (it is about an order of magnitude less powerful than the U.S.'s most modest nuclear weapons), certainly catapulted Afghanistan back into the public consciousness, however temporarily.
President Trump has also learned, in the last week, that the best way to legitimize his presidency, which has been battered by months of talk of Russia "hacking" the election, is through military action. CNN's Fareed Zakaria called the U.S. strikes against the Assad government in Syria the moment "Donald Trump became president of the United States."
Trump got a hint of this lesson at his first address to a joint session of Congress. His acknowledgement of the widow of a Navy SEAL killed during a raid on an Al-Qaeda compound in Yemen led staunch Trump critics like CNN's Van Jones to declare Trump "became president of the United States" at that moment.
In that moment, the emerging contours of Trump's escalated war on terror were wiped away. March saw a marked increase in civilian casualties from anti-ISIS coalition strikes, reportedly because the White House had loosened restrictions on when airstrikes were appropriate, but not a marked increase in coverage of the costs of U.S.-led military actions abroad.
The Washington establishment—politicians and media—have in less than the first 100 days illustrated for Donald Trump that perhaps the only thing he can expect to consistently be awarded for is publicized military action—whether it's a raid in Yemen of questionable value that leads to U.S. and civilian casualties, or a strike against a country in which he previously said he was not interested in regime change. "The Resistance" will see Trump as a proto-fascist, Hitler-in-waiting up until the point when he starts exercising military force. Then he's a patriot.
So it's unsurprising that the last week has seen a series of reversals in some of the least muddled tenets Trump expressed on the campaign trail—NATO is no longer obsolete and the U.S. can no longer not afford to act as the world's policeman.
None of this, however, has changed the fundamentals in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Trump's uncritical embrace of NATO, however, does make the difficult choices about Afghanistan easier to avoid, and the status quo of indefinite war easier to maintain.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and, arguably, won the war soon after. "We won the war in 2001," Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer (ret.) told me years ago, on the eve of another NATO summit. "With 500 Americans in three months, the war in Afghanistan was won." And then the U.S. kept fighting.
In 2001, Afghanistan was one of the only "safe havens" for Islamist terrorists on the planet. Now such safe havens exist around the world, mostly in countries recent U.S. military actions have helped to destabilize.
Donald Trump, the "ultimate outsider," presented himself as a figure who could question the status quo. Instead he's solidified it. Where Barack Obama gave George Bush's war on terror the legitimacy of bipartisanship, Trump is now in the same way arguably folding in "anti-establishmentarians" as well.