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

The State of Play in U.S.-Taliban Talks and the Afghan Peace Process

The State of Play in U.S.-Taliban Talks and the Afghan Peace Process

Thursday, April 11, 2019

By: Johnny Walsh

The latest round of U.S.-Taliban talks concluded on March 12, with both sides noting progress but conceding that no breakthroughs had been made. After two weeks of discussions in Doha, Qatar, American officials said they were close to reaching a final agreement on a potential U.S. troop withdrawal and a Taliban pledge to no longer allow terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. But how far can these talks go without the Afghan government involved? Is Afghanistan’s post-2001 progress in jeopardy? And what do regional actors think about the talks? USIP’s Johnny Walsh examines the state of play in the Afghan peace process.

Peace Processes

Reaching a Durable Peace in Afghanistan and Iraq: Learning from Investments in Women’s Programming

Reaching a Durable Peace in Afghanistan and Iraq: Learning from Investments in Women’s Programming

Friday, March 29, 2019

By: Danielle Robertson; Steven E. Steiner

USIP recently partnered with New America to convene roundtable discussions with government, civil society, and humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organizations to learn from the past decade of women’s programming in fragile states such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on these discussions, this report provides guidance for improving future programming to not only integrate the needs of women but also recognize the role women play in transforming violent conflict and sustaining a durable peace.

Gender

Can Afghanistan Reap a Peace Dividend if Taliban Talks Succeed?

Can Afghanistan Reap a Peace Dividend if Taliban Talks Succeed?

Thursday, March 28, 2019

By: William Byrd

In recent months there has been a flurry of movement in the Afghan peace process, leading to talk of a “peace dividend” that would boost the country’s economy and incentivize and sustain peace. For example, the November 2018 Geneva international conference on Afghanistan called for donors and development and regional partners to develop a post-settlement economic action plan. But what would a peace dividend look like in war-torn Afghanistan? In the short run, could it help incentivize the insurgency and state actors to agree and adhere to a peace agreement? And in the longer term, could it help sustain peace and lead to a more prosperous and stable Afghanistan?

Economics & Environment; Peace Processes

How Peace Was Made: An Inside Account of Talks between the Afghan Government and Hezb-e Islami

How Peace Was Made: An Inside Account of Talks between the Afghan Government and Hezb-e Islami

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

By: Qaseem Ludin

The September 2016 peace accord between the Afghan government and the Hezb-e Islami militant group has been regarded as a first major step toward restoring Afghanistan to a state of peace. This Special Report provides a firsthand account of the protracted negotiations that led to the agreement—and offers important insights for how similar talks might proceed with the Taliban.

Peace Processes

View All Publications