The United States dropped a massive GBU-43 bomb, the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat, in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday against a series of caves used by Islamic State militants, the military said.
It was the first time the United States has used this size of bomb in a conflict. It was dropped from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, close to the border with Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said.
Also known as the “mother of all bombs,” the GBU-43 is a 21,600 pound (9,797 kg) GPS-guided massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) munition and was first tested in March 2003, just days before the start of the Iraq war.
The bomb hit a “tunnel complex” in Achin district in Nangarhar province, very close to the border with Pakistan. The strike occurred at about 8.02 pm IST.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious, with a number of militant groups trying to claim territory more than 15 years after the US invasion which toppled the Taliban government.
General John Nicholson, the head of US and international forces in Afghanistan, said the bomb was used against caves and bunkers housing fighters of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K.
It was not immediately clear how much damage the device did.
“This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K,” Nicholson said in a statement.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer opened his daily news briefing speaking about the use of the bomb and said, “We targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters used to move around freely, making it easier for them to target US military advisers and Afghan forces in the area.”
Last week, a US soldier was killed in the same district as the bomb was dropped while conducting operations against Islamic State.
“The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously and in order to defeat the group, we must deny them operational space, which we did,” Spicer said.
He said the bomb was used at around 7 p.m. local time and described the device as “a large, powerful and accurately delivered weapon.” The United States took “all precautions necessary to prevent civilian casualties and collateral damage,” he said.
US officials say intelligence suggests Islamic State is based overwhelmingly in Nangarhar and neighboring Kunar province.
Estimates of its strength in Afghanistan vary. US officials have said they believe the movement has only 700 fighters but Afghan officials estimate it has about 1,500.
Islamic State’s offshoot in Afghanistan is suspected of carrying out several attacks on minority Shi’ite Muslim targets.
An Afghan National Army (ANA) official, who did not want to be named, was quoted by TOLONews as saying that they were not aware of the size of the bomb but that the US had been using different types of weapons against the IS and other militants for the past few months.
Meanwhile, NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan confirmed the strike, and said US Forces-Afghanistan conducted the strike on an IS tunnel complex in Achin district as part of ongoing efforts to defeat the group in Afghanistan.
“The strike was designed to minimize the risk to Afghan and US forces conducting clearing operations in the area while maximizing the destruction of IS fighters and facilities,” the statement read.
The use of the bomb comes as the US involvement in Afghanistan heads into its 16th year in the fall, and days after a US Special Forces operator was killed in the same region.
The MOAB was designed to target large below-ground areas. It would have felt “like a nuclear weapon to anyone near the area,” lieutenant colonel Rick Francona (ret.) told CNN.
The bomb would have already been in the country before it was dropped out of the military aircraft, operated by Air Force Special Operations Command, military sources told CNN’s Barbara Starr.