Thursday’s detonation in Afghanistan of the massive GBU 43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, also known as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) could be for this war what the Tet Offensive was for Vietnam: a tactical military success that became the iconic symbol of a war gone hopelessly wrong.
Famed CBS correspondent Walter Cronkite’s poignant post-Tet commentary woke up Americans to that war’s strategic bankruptcy. The MOAB should do the same for Afghanistan. Fortunately, there is still time to win this one.
To be sure, the exceptionally-talented commander Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson was correct in stating that the bomb was the right munition for the right target. Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K, the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan) was using deep tunnel complexes in the Achin district to hide from American surveillance, amass logistics, and plan and coordinate their operations. The intelligence needed to find and strike the bunker was extensive. Experts in targeting and the law of armed conflict analyzed the problem in detail. The MOAB was probably the only alternative to a bloody ground assault. Destroying this complex will be a major setback for ISIS. There is even a chance it will not recover.
I have known General Nicholson for nearly ten years. There is no senior American official with more experience in the country. He must have carefully considered the use of the bomb and made a sound decision on the military considerations. Therein lies the rub.
Afghan responses in the Twittersphere reflect the polarizing nature of this intractable conflict. Pro-government voices applaud the strike and note the absence of civilian casualties. Critics use the strike to stoke outrage. They decry what they call the continued use of Afghan soil as a testing ground for massive weapons. Former President Hamid Karzai, whom the United States supported after the fall of the Taliban, took to Twitter to condemn the strike and called on Afghans to put a stop to U.S. military operations. The Taliban likely are pleased with the strike. They detest IS-K as much or more than they despise the Afghan government.
These responses were entirely predictable, but whatever effort was coordinated to limit the potential fallout seems ineffective. Unless the United States and Afghan governments can provide extensive post-strike analysis that justifies the bombing in the minds of Afghans, civil unrest becomes likely. Combined with high levels of dissatisfaction with the government, unemployment likely reaching 50 percent, an ongoing refugee crisis, heightened tensions with Pakistan, and steady advances by the Taliban, such unrest could explode into catastrophe. I wrote in 2015 about exactly this kind of calamity arising and how to prevent it.
The fact of the matter is that no American in Kabul oversees the full-range of U.S. political, diplomatic, military, economic, and intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Each agency operates in its own bureaucratic silo. As consistently happens in war, business, and government, silos can undermine performance and even lead to disaster.
The only person with the authority and responsibility to manage the full-range of American efforts in Afghanistan is President Trump. He is also the only one who can do so regarding conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, not to mention ongoing challenges with North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China. This absurd situation is a major reason why the “world’s greatest military” cannot seem to win any wars. It also helps to explain why so much in-silo progress made at such expense consistently fails to add up to strategic success.
How can President Trump prevent the MOAB from becoming Afghanistan’s Tet?
First, he needs to put somebody in charge of the full range of American efforts in Afghanistan immediately. There is no U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. Key senior officials in State and Defense have yet to be nominated. The most logical person, therefore, is General Nicholson. He has the experience, relationships, breadth of vision, and intellectual courage to handle the responsibility. He is also in Kabul.
Second, he needs to develop a realistic Afghanistan policy and direct Nicholson to develop an integrated strategy to achieve a successful outcome. The Afghan strategy has been adrift since 2010, as the Obama administration fixated on troop withdrawals. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster needs to complete the policy review so Nicholson and an interagency team can begin making a strategy worthy of the name.
The MOAB does not need to become a new symbol of expensive failure. Americans need to begin asking “what the hell is going on” and demand the Trump administration deliver realistic aims, a credible strategy, and proper war management. The stakes are worth it.
Christopher D. Kolenda is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of Focused Engagement, a critically acclaimed report on Afghanistan with the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are his own. Originally published in The Hill on 15 April 2017.