Fourteen years ago, in response to Saddam Hussein threatening the “mother of all wars” in the face of a US-led attack, the Bush administration broadcast a video of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb to warn of what Saddam’s forces faced if they dared to fight. Donald Rumsfeld, one of the chief architects of the disastrous Iraq policy, declared that “the goal is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there is an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight against the coalition”.
After a brief pause, during which the Americans and the British were responsible for an incompetent and myopic occupation following the invasion, the Iraqis did fight, as we know. However, the “mother of all bombs”, as it inevitably became known, was not used in the savage strife which followed. This was, at least in part, because the terrain in which combat took place, urban and largely flattish rural areas, did not warrant its use.
The MOAB could be brought into play in a conflict against an enemy, North Korea, for example, with underground nuclear facilities. Or the Americans may choose to use their even bigger conventional bomb: the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 300-pounder which can blast through one hundred feet of reinforced concrete. However, if relations with Russia really hit the depths, then Washington should perhaps be wary of the Kremlin supplying another possible opponent, say Iran, with its “father of all bombs” – which is bigger than the MOAB or the MOP – with a payload equivalent to 44 tonnes of TNT and a blast radius of a thousand feet.
Just how ready the US is to take part in another war remains unclear from contradictory messages coming from Washington. As Donald Trump was announcing that he was “sending an armada” to North Korea, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was stressing that not too much should be read into the deployment. Days after Mr Trump warned the Assad regime about the use of barrel bombs, his Defence Secretary, Gen James Mattis, was firm that the US will not intervene to stop the use of the weapon. “There is a limit to what we can do,” he said.
Away from hypothetical wars, the Americans had used deep penetration bombs in Afghanistan to clear Taliban positions in mountains, caves and tunnels in 2001 and 2002. They also unknowingly bombed large groups of civilians, including wedding parties, mainly because they depended on “intelligence” from warlords who used the US Air Force to settle tribal vendettas.
The MOAB was not invented until 2003 and by then the Americans and the British had moved on to carry out regime change in Iraq using Saddam’s non-existent WMD arsenal as an excuse. This led directly to the insurgency igniting in Afghanistan. With Western resources which should have been used to safeguard and develop the country moving to Iraq, the Taliban, fed and watered by its sponsors in the Pakistani military and secret police, came across the border to take advantage of the security vacuum.
The Afghan war really got under way in 2006 when the Western military returned, the British going to Helmand, and Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) was established. The policy on air-strikes had various twists and turns in the years to come. There was a period of “Courageous Restraint”, in which warplanes would fly very low amid much noise – “show of force” – but not actually fire any missiles or drop any bombs. This was meant to intimidate the Taliban without the risk of civilian casualties. It did not work. I recall being on various occasions with British, American and Afghan forces when such passes were made. The Afghan translators listening in to Taliban communications would hear them hoot with laughter. The policy was reversed.
With Western losses mounting and rising unpopularity of the war in the US and Europe, Isaf’s combat mission officially ended in 2013. The target size for Afghan security forces was reached – but only by shortening their already short training period. Their losses mounted. The withdrawal date had been telescoped long beforehand, giving the Taliban and other jihadist groups time to prepare offensives.
After elections in Pakistan, the new President, Ashraf Ghani, decided to reach out to the Pakisitani military hoping they would curb the Taliban. He broke protocol by going to see army chiefs before meeting the elected Pakistani government, thus undermining the already weak civilian administration. The policy did not work: the bombings and shooting became even more ferocious with the capital, Kabul, now regularly hit. The policy was reversed.
Donald Trump has inherited a mess in Afghanistan, where an American force remained behind after Isaf. Isis arrived in the country about 18 months ago and has gained some ground. This, however, should be put into context. There is little similarity between them and the group in Syria and Iraq. The Afghan version came out of Taliban infighting, there are some foreign fighters, mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks, but they previously adhered to the Taliban.
The current head of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, is highly respected, one of the best commanders of his generation. With long previous service in the country, he is fully aware of the fundamental problem facing this counter-insurgency mission – the support the insurgents get from across the border. “It is very difficult to succeed in the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and a safe haven,” he pointed out.
The use of the MOAB took place in Nangarhar, very near the Pakistani border where Isis leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was killed in an air-strike last year. The US had already killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the head of the Taliban and head of Isis, inside Pakistan.
So the “signal”, if there was one, may be to Pakistan as well as North Korea and Iran. But the one fact that does remain is that a bomb developed for the Iraq war was finally used against the forces of Islamist extremism the illegal invasion by George W Bush and Tony Blair played a key part in unleashing.