When the US first tested the Massive Ordinance Air Blast, or MOAB, in March of 2003, it was thought to be designed for “psychological operations,” officials told reporters. The 21,000-lb. (9,500-kg.) bomb was dropped at a test site at Eglin, southeast of Pensacola, Florida. Then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the bomb would create an “enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military [then under Saddam Hussein] to fight.”
It has taken 14 years for Rumsfeld’s vision to come to fruition, and it has happened in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Dropped on Thursday at a cave complex in Nangarhar province near the Pakistani border, it was targeting Islamic State fighters. Initially the US thought it killed 36 ISIS members, but a governor in Afghanistan has now claimed 94 were killed. That would be more than 10% of all the ISIS fighters in the region of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISIS’s affiliate is often known as “ISIS-K” or “ISIS-Khorasan Province.”
Criticism of the use of MOAB has ranged from complaints that it was a waste of money (the bomb costs $16 million), to claims that it would aid ISIS recruitment. US President Donald Trump told reporters on April 14 that he had given the military authorization to use this ordinance and carry out its mission as it sees fit, intimating that his specific approval for Thursday’s operation was not requested.
The operation in Afghanistan caps almost 16 years of war there for the United States. National Security Adviser H.R McMaster is reportedly heading to Afghanistan to assess US operations there. It is part of a much larger strategic picture of how the US military has deepened its role in counter-insurgency operations around the world in the last decade.
On March 2, Flintlock 2017 exercises kicked off in Burkina Faso with US special forces partnering with seven African countries. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) notes that the exercises began in 2005 in Senegal and have grown to include “20 nations demonstrating regional cooperation in training in small unit tactics, information sharing, communications, first aid, weapons training and other military operations.” Nick Turse at The Nation noted that US operations in Africa increased 300% between 2013 and 2014. On Friday, the Voice of America reported that “dozens of Americans soldiers have been deployed to Mogadishu [Somalia] to train and equip Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia forces fighting extremism.”
The unclassified joint report of the US Department of Defense and Department of State on foreign military training for 2015-2016 ran to 321 pages of lists of various support for 154 countries and territories, such as the Palestinian Authority. This is the most recent report available, but its scope is tremendous and speaks to an unprecedented level of involvement of the US throughout the world, often specifically tailored to counter-terrorism. In Africa that means fighting groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb). In Central Asia it has mean bolstering the security forces of countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Up until President Rodrigo Duterte asked the US forces to leave last year, America had spent 15 years helping the Philippines fight Islamist terrorism in its southern Mindanao province.
In Yemen, Donald Trump has authorized an increased number of air strikes and raids against al-Qaida. This builds on US president Barack Obama’s increased use of drones. According to an article by Jessica Purkiss and Jack Serle at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US carried out 563 strikes on Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen under Obama, compared to only 57 strikes under George W. Bush. Already under Trump that number has mushroomed in Yemen to around 70 strikes in the first 100 days of his administration. In all of 2016 there were only 38 drone strikes there.
In Syria, the US has increased its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces since the beginning of the year. In late March it carried out an operation behind ISIS lines at Tabqa Dam, east of Raqqa. The close involvement led to a misplaced US air strike last week, killing 18 SDF fighters, but cooperation to take Raqqa from ISIS will continue, as will a deepening US relationship with the Kurds in Syria.
In the wake of MOAB the policy that seems to be taking shape is to build on the foundations laid by the two previous administrations, and give the military freer rein throughout the world. From Burkina Faso to Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, that seems to entail total war against a plethora of Islamist terrorist organizations that don’t seem to be decreasing in number since al-Qaida arrived on the scene 20 years ago. What began with “America First” for Trump seems to have very quickly morphed into increasing involvement abroad.
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