Even in Afghanistan, a country that has seen four decades of bloodshed and destruction, the ravages of a relatively small contingent of the so-called “Islamic State” extremist group have been shocking: Men, women and children beheaded, individuals blown up with explosives strapped to their bodies, children indoctrinated to commit atrocities. So the U.S. military’s “Mother of All Bombs” dropped onto a remote warren of ISIS tunnels and caves was welcomed in some quarters. But there is more that the Afghan government and the U.S. can do to reduce the frustration and despair that drives so many, especially the young, into the radical fold.

U.S. Army and Air Force personnel and local children stretch before a soccer game at the Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team Forward Operating Base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Afghan children stretch before soccer game in 2007 with troops working to improve governance. Following the April 13 bombing in Nangarhar, Miakhel writes that improving governance is still the most effective approach against violence. Flickr/St Sgt Jasper

The April 13 U.S. strike with a GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) device, nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs,” was the first combat use of the military’s biggest non-nuclear bomb, and drew attention to the small but stubborn presence of ISIS in Afghanistan.

Some research has put the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan as high as 8,500 in early 2016. But a combination of Taliban offensives and U.S. military drone strikes have decimated ISIS ranks to possible around 700. The Taliban, on the other hand, has an estimated 40,000 fighters who control one third of the country.

Local leaders I’ve spoken with since the MOAB bombing confirmed U.S. government accounts that no civilians appear to have been killed. As I spoke with acquaintances in  the area of the bombing in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province, I repeatedly heard a similar message: The U.S. military should use the mother, father and sons of all bombs, if that’s what it takes to get rid of ISIS in the area and enable residents to return to their homes.

But the presence of ISIS is closely connected with the ongoing Taliban insurgency against the Afghan government. ISIS exploited local grievances and took advantage of weak local governance to establish a foothold.

After the bombing, some Afghans expressed disdain that the U.S. appears to be escalating its military activities to address what is really a larger political struggle. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the U.S. of using Afghanistan as a weapons testing ground.

To provide reassurance, the Afghan government and the U.S. should share evidence with the population as soon as possible that the MOAB had a significant effect against ISIS while also avoiding civilian casualties. And the U.S. should move quickly on its Afghanistan strategy review and assure Afghan leaders and their neighbors that it takes the region’s future seriously and will stay engaged.

To move back on track, the US should focus on how best to calibrate a political strategy that helps the Afghan government win popular support to negotiate a sustainable peace. That will send a message to the Afghan people more spectacular than any bomb.

Related Publications

A Foot Forward for Peace in Afghanistan?

A Foot Forward for Peace in Afghanistan?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

By: Scott Smith

Taliban and Afghan representatives agreed early this week to a basic, albeit non-binding, roadmap for intra-Afghan negotiations aimed at ending the 18-year war. Since the U.S. resumed direct talks with the Taliban last September, the two sides have focused on the withdrawal of foreign forces and the steps the Taliban will take against terrorists on Afghan soil. Meanwhile, intra-Afghan talks on a political roadmap have yet to get off the ground. After months of seeming stasis, this week’s Doha meeting has injected renewed hope. USIP’s Scott Smith looks at what happened this week, what it means for Afghan women, and the next steps in the peace process.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Peace Processes

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

By: Johnny Walsh

After rapid progress in early 2019, the Afghan peace process has seemingly slowed. The U.S. chief negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, said in May that his negotiations with the Taliban were making slow but steady progress, but there has been little headway in starting talks among the various Afghan parties. Meanwhile, violence has ratcheted up, as typically occurs in the spring and summer in Afghanistan. The country’s overdue presidential polls are scheduled for late September, further complicating efforts to achieve peace. Can talks succeed amid the violence and political discord? Will the elections drain momentum from the peace process? USIP’s Johnny Walsh looks at the Afghan peace process ahead of the next round of talks in late June.

Peace Processes

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Thursday, June 13, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

Palwasha Kakar, senior program officer for religion and inclusive societies, testified on June 13 at the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues' hearing on "Women in Conflict: Advancing Women's Role in Peace and Security.” Her expert testimony as prepared is presented below.

Gender; Peace Processes

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

By: Ashley Jackson

Notably absent from the debate around peace in Afghanistan are the voices of those living in parts of the country that have borne the brunt of the fighting since 2001—particularly those living in areas under Taliban control or influence. This report provides insight into how Afghan men and women in Taliban-influenced areas view the prospects for peace, what requirements would have to be met for local Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, and how views on a political settlement and a future government differ between Taliban fighters and civilians.

Reconciliation

View All Publications