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

Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Dispute Heats Up

Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Dispute Heats Up

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.;  Ambassador Richard Olson;  Andrew Watkins

In at least two incidents in late December and early January, Afghan Taliban soldiers intervened to block an ongoing Pakistani project to erect fencing along the shared border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — the demarcation of which prior Afghan governments have never accepted. Despite attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically, and the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan as a bridge to the international community, both sides remain at odds over the fence. USIP’s Richard Olson, Asfandyar Mir and Andrew Watkins assess the implications of this border dispute for Afghanistan and Pakistan’s bilateral relationship and the region at large.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

How to Mitigate Afghanistan’s Economic and Humanitarian Crises

How to Mitigate Afghanistan’s Economic and Humanitarian Crises

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

By: William Byrd, Ph.D.

Afghanistan is teetering on the brink of a famine and economic collapse. Millions face the prospect of falling into poverty, starvation and even death. On December 22, the U.S. Treasury Department and United Nations Security Council provided sanctions relief for humanitarian assistance flowing to Afghanistan. USIP’s William Byrd says these actions are welcome but insufficient and discusses what more can be done to ensure the delivery of essential, life-saving aid to the Afghan people.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience

What Afghanistan Teaches Us About Evidence-Based Policy

What Afghanistan Teaches Us About Evidence-Based Policy

Thursday, December 2, 2021

By: Corinne Graff, Ph.D.

Even as the debate over the lessons learned by the U.S. government in Afghanistan continues, several clear conclusions have emerged. One is that U.S. agencies repeatedly underestimated the time and resources needed to support a nation wracked by decades of war, while they failed to follow a consistent plan for civilian recovery efforts. U.S. personnel also lacked the training needed to be successful in the field, and monitoring and evaluation efforts did not receive the policy attention required to enable course corrections and learning. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyFragility & Resilience

Aiding Afghan Local Governance: What Went Wrong?

Aiding Afghan Local Governance: What Went Wrong?

Thursday, November 18, 2021

By: Frances Z. Brown

After 20 years of an ambitious, costly international state-building effort, the government of Afghanistan collapsed in the summer of 2021 in a matter of weeks. The Afghan security forces’ remarkably rapid defeat earned significant attention, but the Taliban victory over the internationally backed Afghan republic stemmed equally from deep-seated political and governance factors. Across all the facets of the Western state-building endeavor in Afghanistan, there is now an enormous need to assess how the international project fell so far short of its aims.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyDemocracy & Governance

View All Publications