The MOAB Strike in Afghanistan Was Not For Kim Jong-un

Map of where the MOAB was detonated.


Earlier, the United States stunned the world when it detonated one of its 14 Massive Ordinance Air Blast bombs, the GBU-43 (a.k.a the “Mother of All Bombs,” or MOAB), in Afghanistan. It was directed against elements of the Islamic State (ISIS) operating in Nangarhar Province, which is a small, isolated (even by Afghan standards) part of the country bordering Pakistan. While most media analysts were quick to note that the weapon has not been used in combat since it was developed in 2003, and that the use of such a large weapon (one of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the world), implied that the Trump Administration was sending more signals to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, they are simply wrong.

From Wired Magazine:

“The MOAB is a concussive bomb designed to explode above ground and create a massive blast. Most conventional bombs—like the Joint Direct Attack Munitions the US regularly drops on Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—will be some small percentage of explosive, and a much larger part casement that will kill people by bursting apart into a thousand pieces. The Moab takes the inverse approach.”

First, it is fair to say that a fringe benefit of using such a weapon is that it does implicitly signal to America’s enemies that there is a new sheriff in town. However, the intended audience was no one other than the jihadists waging war against the U.S. and its coalition partners in Afghanistan (and throughout the region). So, while the media punditry can continue talking about the continued “signaling” to Kim Jong-un, the facts are a bit trickier than the pundit class can wrap their heads around.

U.S. Special Forces operators engage in combat in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.

Case in point, the MOAB was developed under the George W. Bush Administration. I can assure you that the Bush Administration initially intended to use it against targets in not only Afghanistan but, also, more importantly, Iraq. However, it was discovered that the MOAB was simply too destructive in densely populated environments, like those found in Iraq and other countries that the U.S. intended to use the weapon in. Also, the focus on the shockwave and the sound and feel of the detonation by U.S. war planners indicated that the bomb was more important for U.S. psychological warfare operations (PSYOPS) in its “Shock & Awe” strategy than anything else.

Furthermore, the MOAB is a bomb that focuses on creating a blast big enough to reach into areas where conventional U.S. bombs, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) cannot. It has a blast radius of one-mile. The Bush Administration ultimately decided against deploying the weapon in Iraq. They feared that the risk of collateral damage in the mostly urban areas of Iraq would be far more detrimental to the American war effort (in the court of public opinion) than whatever tactical gains America could yield from using the weapon.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama was widely viewed by many in the military as having created overly restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROEs) that limited the military’s ability to correctly fight (and defeat) terrorists. Here is former President Obama pictured in the White House Situation Room talking with key advisers (including Denis McDonough on the left and Susan Rice on the right).

Then, under the Obama Administration, they built upon this concept and over-legalized American military policy to the point that each operation in the Global War on Terror (renamed to the “Overseas Contingency Operation” under Obama) had to run a gauntlet of lawyers and get approval from the highly politicized Obama national security officials.  It wasn’t just the MOAB that was off-limits, but it was basic war fighting practices that became suspect to the decision-makers in the Obama Administration.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump in the White House Rose Garden lauds the MOAB attack in Nangarhar Province.

Thus, an atmosphere of self-negating restraint was created during the entirety of the Obama Administration. Still, though, the fact remained that the MOAB was simply too powerful to use against mostly urban targets without significant political and diplomatic blowback for America on the world stage.

“The Moab is just a shock wave.” – Mark Cancian, CSIS

The concept of using the MOAB in Afghanistan emanated from the U.S. Special Operations Command. It was SOCOM that was heading the operation against ISIS elements operating from caves in Nangarhar Province. ISIS had consolidated its forces in what they obviously assumed was a safe stronghold from whence to conduct operations against the U.S. in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army General John W. Nicholson, Jr. commands all coalition forces in Afghanistan today.

U.S. Army General John W. Nicholson, commander of the war effort in Afghanistan, reasoned that utilizing the MOAB would work in the condensed environment of a mountain stronghold: it was strong enough (not unlike the Daisy Cutters of old) to cut through the natural protection of the mountains, and the type of blast the bomb creates would essentially seep down into the tunnels, and create an unbelievably destructive inferno that would consume most of the ISIS fighters dwelling down below. The MOAB also leeches out flammable chemicals that are pushed deeper down into the caves by the massive blast.

This was a far cheaper solution than continuing to send men–even the highly skilled Special Forces operators–into a seemingly interminable meat grinder against entrenched jihadist enemies. It is highly likely that the U.S. will continue to resist deploying the MOAB in more populated, urban countries, such as Iraq or Syria, given the chances of collateral damage. However, in a sparsely populated region of an isolated country like Afghanistan, the MOAB is the most effective weapon to deploy. Indeed, when it comes to ending the Afghan War–which is what Trump wants to do–I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up deploying many more of our remaining MOABs against similar targets.


Make no mistake, Kim Jong-un (and other American enemies) have likely taken heed of the Trump Administration’s willingness to use any and all means to defeat America’s enemies, but this was not the result of larger geopolitics at play. This was a cunning and brilliant tactical decision by the true masters of warfare at U.S. SOCOM. The intended audience was much more local than many in the media realize: America was sending signals, and those signals were directed at ISIS and other jihadist groups, letting them know that America plans on winning (yes, winning) the Global War on Terror.

So, be warned. There is indeed a new sheriff in town.


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