President Donald Trump declared his deployment of the "mother of all bombs" on a remote region of Afghanistan last month a "very successful" mission, but a new analysis is raising questions as to what was actually accomplished and why the mammoth explosive was even dropped to begin with.
The U.K.-based geographic information services (GIS) analyst group Alcis on Wednesday published a new report on the long-term, on-the-ground impact of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB).
"Drawing on very high resolution satellite imagery, along with recent ground photography and reporting, it is now clear that the recent MOAB strike in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan created far less damage and destruction than was initially widely reported," the report states.
While the survey confirms the "absolute" destruction of "38 buildings and 69 trees within an area extending 150 meters from the center of the strike location," the high-res images also reveal "the absence of a 300 meter crater at the strike location"—which was said to be an "expectation" of the blast.
Further, "debunking media reports of the MOAB strike destroying buildings over three kilometers away," the analysis finds that the damage reported in nearby villages was more likely the "consequence of the ongoing conflict in the area, most likely airstrikes carried out by the U.S. military."
"Whilst media interest in the story of the MOAB strike was significant, military commentary on the other hand was and still remains muted, save for a few limited press statements and briefings" Alcis observes, noting that the U.S. military is "yet to release a full damage assessment" of the strike.
The Pentagon claimed that the MOAB was dropped to destroy an Islamic State (ISIS) tunnel complex and was, according to Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis, "necessary to break" the terrorist group in that region.
"In Afghanistan, [U.S. forces] have been engaged in that fight up in that corner against ISIS elements up there for some time," Mattis said at the time. "The battle was going on, and we were going to use what was necessary to break ISIS. And we've made that very clear in every theater where we're up against ISIS."
However, the report notes that "damage to caves and tunnels within the strike location has not yet been assessed." The Guardian previously reported that the U.S. military has only allowed the Afghan government "limited access to the blast site," making it impossible to verify the impact.
At the time it was dropped, critics accused Trump of employing the massive weapon to distract from his domestic political woes, such as plummeting approval ratings and various legislative failures—a so-called 'Wag the Dog' moment. Not only was the bombing successful in capturing the media's attention, it was also approved by a majority of the American people despite the dearth of information on its impact.
Reporting on the new analysis, the Guardian's Sune Engel Rasmussen noted Friday that the study "once again raises the question why the MOAB was used."
"In Afghanistan," Engel Rasmussen observed, "ISIS constitutes a minor military threat compared to the Taliban. There has been speculation that the U.S. wanted to send a signal to other powers in the region, but [U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Capt. William Salvin] insisted the MOAB was used for a 'specific tactical purpose on the battlefield.'"
However, Richard Brittan, managing director of Alcis, said "that argument only made sense if the U.S. wanted to deploy MOABs on hundreds of similar settlements in the targeted Mahmand valley, which would put years of development work at risk," Engel Rasmussen reported.
"If their approach is that they are going to level this valley with all its settlements, then MOABs galore," Brittan said. "But getting people back to making a living off the land is what you've got to focus on."
The Alcis analysis, which is the second of three reports on the strike, also casts doubt the Afghan military's claim that "94 militants including four major commanders had been killed in the strike," calling that assessment "overly precise." At the same time, it says the claim of zero civilian casualties is "anomalous."
Satellite imagery of active crops in the region led the researchers to suppose that the fields would not have been left unattended. "Indeed, it is likely that some of the farmers tending these fields would have been residing within the buildings of the settlement obliterated by the MOAB strike," the report states. "It is therefore entirely possible that the count of casualties has included working-age male farmers rather than solely militants, as the Afghan defense ministry has indicated."
Mattis has refused to give an estimate of the death toll.
Notably, the analysis comes amid reports that the Pentagon is going to request 3,000 to 5,000 more soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan to help "break a deadlocked fight with the Taliban," according to AFP.