America’s war in Afghanistan has dragging on for so long that by now most Americans have largely forgotten about it, but it was back in the news on Thursday with a literal bang. The Air Force dropped the Mother of All Bombs on an Islamic State encampment, and that’s not just Trumpian hyperbole but the actual nickname of the weapon.
The official moniker is Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but the initials naturally inspired the more apt term that all the military types apparently use. It weighs 22,000 pounds, packs a net explosive weight of 18,700 pounds, and is said to be the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the long history of war. That’s still probably insufficient to bring a conclusion to what is already America’s longest-running military conflict, but surely enough to have a literal impact on the Islamic State.
Such serious ordinance suggests a renewed American seriousness about the Afghanistan war, and the broader war on terror, so even if it doesn’t serve any broader military strategy that’s good enough for us. There can be no pity for the Islamic State savages that the bomb fell on, who are just one of the problems we face in Afghanistan but a bigger threat in Iraq and Syria and all the places around the globe where they’ve pulled off terror attacks, and it’s hard to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate so many of them in one fell swoop. Although the Islamic State usually embeds itself in civilian areas the target was carelessly free of any non-combatants, and the Russians and Iranians and Sunni Arabs and other players that make fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so complicated don’t care about godforsaken and mostly oil-free and perpetually troublesome Afghanistan, and that big bomb had been sitting around in a warehouse for years with no good reason not to use it. A 22,000 pound bomb can’t be launched from even an almighty B-52 or placed atop even the most powerful missiles and instead has to be pushed out of a cargo plane, meaning it’s only useful against enemies who lack even World War II-vintage anti-aircraft systems, so that’s another reason to grab the rare chance to try it out on the likes of the Islamic State.
Coming shortly after the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were launched at an airbase in the trickier Syrian terrain, it also sends a potentially useful signal of resolve. President Donald Trump’s administration has since sent mixed signals about that Syrian strike, with the Secretary of State warning that anybody who murders young children anywhere in the world can expect more of the same and the White House Press Secretary stressing that what the president had said just a days before about not being the policeman of the world still applied, and those more conventional bombs don’t seem to have stopped that airbase from launching it’s own conventional bombs in its long-running civil war, but the message with the Mother of All Bombs probably won’t be so muddied. Although the Syrian strike eked out a 51 percent approval ratings in the first poll, there was also heated criticism from both the peacenik left and the isolationist right, as well as principled constitutional conservatives who had insisted that President Barack Obama seek congressional approval for such an action and the sorts of intellectually honest liberals who had to admit they had defended Obama’s inaction. Trump himself had also urged inaction at the time, and “tweeted” the missiles strikes were only used to prop up sagging poll number, and plenty of others on both left and right proved just as flip-floppy, and there’s no telling where they might all flip and flop to next.
What just happened in Afghanistan is a whole lot simpler, though, in military as well as domestic and international politics terms. America went to war in Afghanistan because that is where the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were launched, and similar intolerable acts were still being planned, and not just President George W. Bush but also future Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council and the leaders of pretty much every decent democratic nation agreed that was sufficient reason to wage war there. Since then there’s been plenty of argument about how it should be fought, although the troop levels and casualty rates have lately been so low you wouldn’t have noticed it during the past campaign, but even after so many years there’s still a bipartisan consensus that America remains entitled to drop any old bomb on that troublesome land that it chooses.
Trump’s action was still empowered by the military authorization that bipartisan majorities granted way back when it all started, too, so there’s no trouble with the argument that critics on both the left and right are raising about the constitutionality of that Syrian strike, and it’s not the same betrayal of his isolationist campaign rhetoric, which also included explicit promises to bomb the barnyard epithet out of the Islamic State. The Russians still want nothing to do with Afghanistan ever again, the Syrians and Iranians and their Sunni antagonists have little reason to care, the United Nations and all the decent democratic nations have more pressing concerns, and the Democrats have better fights to pick, so we can hope that he’s taking advantage of a rare opportunity take care of some business in Afghanistan. Should Trump administration articulate how it’s serving some broader strategic purpose, which it very well might, that would also be nice.
There’s really no getting out of Afghanistan until we leave a country that’s unlikely to ever try anything like Sept. 11 again, and even that low bar seems awful high for a long time to come, and unlikely to be achieved even with the Mother of All Bombs, but with low troop levels and relative-to-the-history-of-war low casualties America has kept the country’s long history of hate from infecting the rest of the world for the past 16 years or so. Such small victories aren’t satisfying to any American, and especially to such accustomed-to-winning-big-league types as Trump, but that’s how the score is kept in a season that’s arguably been lasting the Seventh Century or so.
Dropping that Mother of All Bombs on a remote and conveniently civilian-free camp full of murderous Islamic State thugs during a unique opportunity to do so was a good idea, and kudos to the generals who came up with it and the president who listened to them, despite his campaign promise that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals did. We’ll count it as one of those small victories in a long, long war, and faintly hope that Trump will settle for that claim.
— Bud Norman