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

Johnny Walsh on Election Season in Afghanistan

Johnny Walsh on Election Season in Afghanistan

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

By: Johnny Walsh

As Afghans wait for official results from the parliamentary polls, Johnny Walsh says that the country is already entering “high political season” in preparation for the critical April 2019 presidential election. Although the Taliban continues to carry out high-profile attacks across the country, Walsh says that many Afghans are focused on the presidential polls and its implications for the peace process.

Democracy & Governance

James Mattis: Yemen Needs a Truce Within 30 Days

James Mattis: Yemen Needs a Truce Within 30 Days

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

By: USIP Staff

Secretary of Defense James Mattis yesterday urged combatants in Yemen, including Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi faction, to negotiate a cease-fire in that war within 30 days while speaking to diplomats, military officers and conflict-resolution specialists at the U.S. Institute of Peace. In a webcast conversation moderated by former national security advisor and USIP Chair Stephen J. Hadley, Mattis also discussed global security challenges facing the United States—from Russia and China, to North Korea—cybersecurity and the need for the developed world to help fragile states improve their governance and address the root causes of extremism.

Civilian-Military Relations; Global Policy

For the Afghan Peace Process to Work, Women Must be Involved

For the Afghan Peace Process to Work, Women Must be Involved

Monday, October 29, 2018

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Marjan Nahavandi

The bottom line is Afghan women want peace and they want to have a say in how it is negotiated. Without women at the negotiation table, a long-term and inclusive peace is dramatically less likely. Indeed, studies show that the inclusion of women in peace negotiations, leads to peace agreements that are representative of the needs of the people they affect and, therefore, more sustainable.

Gender; Peace Processes

View All Publications