Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
Peter Bergen: Use of bomb should be seen as part of effort to reverse course of Afghan war
Afghan conflict has not been going well for the country's government or the United States
The dropping of a “mother of all bombs” Thursday by the United States on an ISIS cave and bunker complex in Achin district in eastern Afghanistan should be understood as part of an effort to reverse a war that is not going well for the Afghan government and, by extension, the United States.
The non-nuclear 21,600-pound GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB) “targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters use to move around freely,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
Thursday’s bombing had a feeling of deja vu. A decade and a half ago the US Air Force dropped massive 15,000 pound “Daisy Cutter” bombs on the Tora Bora complex where Osama bin Laden was hiding in December 2001. Achin district is only a dozen or so miles from the Tora Bora region.
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While those Daisy Cutter bombs certainly killed many members of al Qaeda, bin Laden and many of his senior leaders escaped. That’s a useful reminder that very few military campaigns are won from the air.
There are perhaps secondary effects of Thursday’s bombing in Afghanistan such as signaling to the North Koreans and the Syrians that the United States can deploy such weapons against their bunker systems, but the key is that the war in Afghanistan is at a critical point.
In fact, the war in Afghanistan is at its lowest point for the Afghans and their American allies since the Taliban were overthrown in the months after 9/11.
The Taliban “control or contest” about a third of the population of the country, according to senior US military officials, a total of around 10 million people, which is more than the population that ISIS controlled in Syria and Iraq at the height of its power during the summer of 2014.
Al Qaeda and ISIS have also established footholds in Afghanistan.
Whereas a few years back Kabul had a bustling restaurant scene and Westerners could live there and lead relatively normal lives, all that is now gone as a result of the multiple bombings in Kabul by the Taliban and the targeted kidnapping of Westerners. The exodus of Westerners from the country has had an adverse impact on both investment and development in Afghanistan.
Because of the worsening situation in Afghanistan, the Trump administration is engaged in a strategic review of Afghanistan both at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, according to multiple U.S. and Afghan officials.
US National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is overseeing the Afghanistan review at the White House and will be traveling to Afghanistan soon to make his own assessment.
McMaster served in Afghanistan running an anti-corruption task force in 2010, as a result of which he understands the players and politics of the country well.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson said that the present troop level of 8,400 US soldiers was insufficient and noted, “We have a shortfall of a few thousand” advisers to train and assist the Afghan army.
The Obama administration had a counterproductive policy of announcing scheduled withdrawals from Afghanistan even as it surged troops into the country. Take, for instance, a speech at West Point on December 1, 2009, where President Obama announced a surge of troops into Afghanistan and also announced their withdrawal date. That withdrawal date, of course, came and went – as did a number of others.
It is in American and Afghan interests for the US to stay in Afghanistan so it doesn’t turn into Iraq circa 2014, with the Taliban controlling much of the country while hosting a strong presence of ISIS and al-Qaeda as well as every other jihadist group of note.
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What to do? The Trump administration should publicly state that the US already has a strategic partnership with Afghanistan until 2024 that was negotiated by the Obama administration and that it promises to maintain a US military “train and advise” non-combat mission for the Afghan army that will stay in the country until the Taliban are contained.
Afghans don’t care if the United States has 8,400 troops in the country, as it does now, or 12,000 troops or 20,000 troops. Clearly there is a difference from a purely military point of view but from a political point of view the message Afghans want to hear is that the United States is not abandoning them.
A public announcement of such a long-term commitment to Afghanistan will help NATO and other allies also commit for the long term. It will also undermine the Taliban.