On April 13, the United States dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on a remote area of Afghanistan’s Achin district. The bomb, formally known as a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb currently in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal. The strike targeted a network of caves being used by ISIS and was the first time the MOAB has ever been used in combat. But a week after it happened, we still have no idea how many casualties the MOAB caused — and U.S. officials aren’t cluing anyone in.
So far, the only reports of the MOAB’s destructive effects come from the Afghan government. On Tuesday, an Afghan official told the New York Times that the strike killed 96 Islamic State fighters, 13 of whom were “major commanders.” But U.S. military officials still haven’t addressed the issue, claiming that continued fighting prevents an investigation.
“U.S. and Afghan Forces are still in contact with the enemy in the area, and are conducting an offensive operation” Navy Captain Bill Salvin, a spokesperson for the military’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, told Inverse on Thursday. “The risk to our forces to go in and investigate the tunnels is still too high so our assessments are ongoing. I would refer you back to the Afghan government for the numbers they cite. We believe we achieved our objective with this strike and we will continue our offensive against ISIS-K.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis was far more blunt about it on Thursday, telling reporters during a visit to Tel Aviv, Israel: “Frankly, digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is probably not a good use of our troops’ time.”
The initial Department of Defense press release about the strike notes that “U.S. forces took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike,” but does not provide any elaboration on whether or not civilian casualties occurred.
On Sunday, a military spokesperson told Inverse “Our battle damage assessments are still being conducted” when asked about civilian casualties, which doesn’t contradict the government’s messaging on Thursday, nor does it provide any more information.
The MOAB is a massive, enormously destructive weapon. It has a net explosive weight of 18,500 pounds, making it the most powerful conventional explosive the U.S. owns. The only conventional bomb that’s allegedly more powerful than the MOAB is Russia’s aptly-named “Father of All Bombs,” but like the MOAB until last week, it’s also never been used in combat.
What Is a Thermobaric Weapon?
Both the MOAB and the FOAB are thermobaric weapons, meaning their primary method of destruction is a blast wave of compressed gases that spreads over a far larger area than traditional bombs (the two weapons have some structural differences other than size, but are similar).
Satellite images of the bomb’s impact site show a massive level of devastation, with what looks like an entire compound or small village of “simple structures” being completely wiped out.
The MOAB was primarily designed as a psychological weapon, relying on its incredible power to frighten and shock its targets. Precursors to the MOAB like the BLU-82 “daisy cutter” were used in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to terrify conventional forces and insurgent populations alike. The U.S. arsenal includes several smaller thermobaric weapons which experts say are more than capable of achieving the same tactical results of the MOAB strike, but that wasn’t the choice made by U.S. command.