Mother of All Bombs

Afghan youths near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province this month. Credit Noorullah Shirzada /Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Afghan youths near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province this month. Credit Noorullah Shirzada /Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I spent the evening of April 13 with a cousin and two aunts in the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan. My aunts mostly talked about their relaxed, liberal early youth in the 1960s among the Kabul elite. As we waited in the driveway for our car, my cousin told me about an explosion in Nangarhar, the eastern province of Afghanistan, where our family comes from. We scrolled through our phones. As we drove out, it became clear it wasn’t the beginning of the Taliban’s so-called Spring Offensive.

Around 8 p.m. Afghan time, the United States had dropped a 21,600-pound, $16 million bomb on Asadkhel, a tiny village nestled between two forested hills, to attack a decades-old tunnel system that was being used by fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State.

Afghanistan has been at war for almost four decades now. Our people lived through the Soviet occupation and the war the mujahedeen fought against the Soviets with the support of the United States; freedom from the Soviet occupation was stained by a brutal civil war between mujahedeen factions (warlords had ruled large parts of the country and exacted a terrible human cost).

The Taliban rule followed. We watched them being bombed into submission and escape after Sept. 11, celebrated a few years of relative calm, and saw the Taliban return to strength and wage a long, bloody insurgency that continues to this day. We watched the world tire of our forever war and forget us.

Throughout the years of war, we had come to make lists of many firsts in Afghanistan — horrors, military victories, defeats, weapons used, atrocities committed, improbable lives saved. The explosion of the “mother of all bombs” on April 13 was a striking addition to the list of “firsts.”

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump barely mentioned Afghanistan during the long presidential campaign. Yet President Trump had chosen to use the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the world on a remote Afghan village.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump barely mentioned Afghanistan during the long presidential campaign. Yet President Trump had chosen to use the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the world on a remote Afghan village.

Afghanistan was simply a convenient landscape for the reality star turned president to unleash a startling, theatrical display of his might. A strange sense of unease enveloped me, despite the years of war and despite being a journalist, as I watched my country being featured as the dehumanized landscape where the biggest non-nuclear bomb had been exploded. “What gives them the right to use this type of weapon on us, or anywhere?” I asked my cousin.

I watched Nangarhar being highlighted on maps of Afghanistan as if it wasn’t home to more than 1.5 million people, as if everything human had instantly been eradicated by the sheer mention of this alpha and omega of military weaponry. News reports described Achin, the district closest to the bombed village, as nothing more than an area populated by Islamic State fighters.

The bomb had become “babao,” the monster that Afghan children were warned was lurking around the corner. It had swallowed up the people, the life from Achin. The civilians who had suffered three years of brutality under the Islamic State ceased to exist. They were inconsequential; what mattered were the terrorists, their caves and the great, big, scary bomb.

I went to bed that night sad with the knowledge that my homeland was still simply a staging ground for foreign nations to project their power. On Friday morning I woke up to find Kabul had chosen to stay quiet and not protest the decision to explode “Madar-e Bamb-Ha,” the Dari translation for “mother of all bombs” Afghans began using.

I set out for Nangarhar. Leaving Kabul can be a dangerous affair. If you travel south of the city, every mile on the road is living with the prospect of an encounter with the Taliban, the possibility of a tire rolling over a lethal roadside bomb.

I was, fortunately, driving east to Jalalabad, one of the largest Afghan cities. I drove for three hours through tunnels carved into the mountainside, past streams flowing beside forested mountains, and arrived in Jalalabad in the afternoon. The bombing site was two hours away. The city did not betray any anxiety. Rickshaws whizzed from roundabout to roundabout; kebab stands on sidewalks did brisk business; men and women filled the bazaars, shopping before the Friday prayer.

Some Afghan officials from Jalalabad took a group of journalists to Achin district, about 40 miles south. We drove through Bati Kot and Shinwar, two districts in between, where the Islamic State had established a significant presence in 2014. Thousands of residents had fled and sought refuge in Jalalabad and Kabul, among other places. Most of them were yet to return, but people carried on with their lives in village bazaars.

We passed an unfinished luxury-housing complex named for Amanullah Khan, the beloved former king of Afghanistan. We passed the site of a proposed university. As we approached Achin, white and purple poppy plants popped up in the green grass fields.

A few miles before Asadkhel, the bombed village, the road turned into a mountainous stretch of rock, dirt and gravel. A market of about 200 stores lay abandoned; the stores had been destroyed in weekslong military operations against the Islamic State fighters. Crumbling foundations, caved-in roofs and some tattered pieces of cloth were all that remained.

Not far from the ruined market, I met two boys: 11-year-old Safiullah and 13-year-old Wajed. They described the explosion as “very loud” but insisted that it did not scare them. Safiullah held on to his unruly goat that he was walking home. “I am used to it,” he said. “I have heard so many bombings.”

Wajed, who had come to bring water to the police, agreed. They said they were glad that the Islamic State fighters were gone. Safiullah had interacted a little with Islamic State fighters as he took his goat for grazing. They told him, “Don’t grow poppy and don’t shave your beard.”

We finally reached a hilltop overlooking a green valley besides Asadkhel. A small cluster of mud houses stood along the hill. Every now and then a child would pass by. We saw no adults.

Two hills obstructed view of the bombed area. American helicopters flew overhead. Three hours passed but we weren’t allowed to proceed further. Officials spoke cheerfully of resounding success and precision of the operation.

Yet every time we sought permission to visit the bombed area, they found excuses to keep us away: “The operation is ongoing!” “There are still Daesh” — Islamic State — “fighters on the loose!” “There are land mines!” and finally, “The area is being cleared!” “No civilians were hurt!”

We weren’t allowed anywhere near the bombed village. We were simply told that about 94 Islamic State fighters had been killed.

In the end, “Madar-e Bamb-Ha” became the star of a grotesque reality television show. We know how much it weighs, what it costs, its impact, its model number and its code name. We know nothing about the people it killed except they are supposed to be nameless, faceless, cave-dwelling Islamic State fighters. It was a loud blast, followed by a loud silence. It is yet another bomb to fall on Afghan soil, and the future of my homeland remains as uncertain as ever.

Ali M. Latifi is a writer based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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