After MOAB Strike, No Word on the Fate of Kidnapped Civilians
Locals worry for their loved ones, but officials insist the air strike hit the mark
Two weeks after U.S. forces dropped one of the most powerful non-nuclear bombs to target Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, there has been no official word on the number of casualties.
A U.S. Air Force MC-130 dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed “Mother Of All Bombs,” in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, a hotbed of Islamic State activities, on April 13, 2017. The attack marked a major shift in strategy on part of the United States in Afghanistan, which has already been fighting the Taliban, in what has become the longest conflict for its forces.
While Afghan officials have provided varying numbers of insurgents killed in the attack, between 93 and more than 100, the U.S. military has maintained a stoic silence on the tangible results the MOAB air strike achieved. An unverified list of names circulating on the internet names terrorists representing nationalities around the region including India and Pakistan.
However, one fact Afghan and U.S. officials agree on is that the 21,000-pound bomb hasn’t claimed any civilian casualties whatsoever.
“We can say with high confidence that there were no civilian casualties as a result of the strike,” U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, Resolute Support spokesperson, told War Is Boring. Salvin added that clearance operations in southern Nangarhar are still underway, as are assessments of the MOAB strike.
“A lot of attention was paid to ensure civilians in the area were safe. Afghan forces coordinated with the U.S. to ensure that all civilians were evacuated ahead of the air strike,” said Javid Faisal, spokesperson to Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan.
While access to the site of the air strike remains off-limits, partly due to the ongoing clearance operations, media and locals who got close enough provide a blurry, yet grim picture of what remains. Homes with cracks on their walls, windows shattered, trees that have been leveled to the ground—and unclaimed bodies of I.S. fighters.
Amidst only glimpses of information, speculation over casualties are rife. One group of civilians among them stands out in particular—those abducted by Islamic State fighters in the region.
Since the Islamic State’s emergence in Afghanistan in 2014, the group—referred to as Daesh by the locals—has kidnapped several hundred Afghans across the country. In Nangarhar province alone, at least 12 incidents resulting in the abduction of 116 civilians and 10 civilian deaths were attributed to the Islamic State in 2016, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
“Daesh fighters kidnapped 65 villagers, and when tribal elders approached them to negotiate their release, they took them as well,” said Ziar Mohammad, 24, from the Pachir Wa Agam district in Nangarhar province, not too far from Achin.
Ziar’s family escaped Daesh attacks on their house last year, and they are among the hundreds of Afghans who have been displaced in 2016 due to growing influence of groups that fight under the Daesh banner.
UNAMA also noted that Daesh fighters abducted 61 civilians from the same district on Oct. 19, 2016. At least 56 “remained in captivity in the Shadel area of Achin district,” UNAMA noted in a February 2017 report.
The fate of those civilians who were still in I.S. captivity when the MOAB was dropped remains unknown. It hasn’t been confirmed whether U.S. and Afghan forces secured the release of the kidnapped civilians.
In fact, a relative of one of the abductees told the media that he hadn’t heard from his uncle who was taken by the Daesh fighters a few weeks earlier and remained concerned if he was in the tunnels that were targeted by the MOAB.
On being asked for a specific comment related to the possibility of casualties among I.S. abductees, Salvin reiterated, “As stated previously, we are very confident that there were no civilian casualties.”
However, the lack of certainty over civilian casualties has helped bolster a rather positive image of the U.S. operations in the region, at least among the locals, who see this as respite, even if momentarily. The Islamic State is widely hated here.
“Daesh are so cruel people,” said 54-year-old Malak Kamin Azimi, a tribal elder from Acchin district, speaking to WIB over phone from Jalalabad city where he was forced to move to with his family to escape the fighting.
“They have slaughtered our people. They took out land. They must be eliminated and the area must be cleared from them,” he said, adding that he and several from Achin look forward to going back to their homes.
As I.S. fighter gained stronger roots in Nangarhar—since its regional establishment in 2014—the province became a active battleground contributing to not only civilian casualties but also to mass displacement of locals escaping I.S. brutality. UNAMA recorded a more than two-fold increase in casualty figures among locals in 2016, documenting 187 civilian casualties compared to 80 civilian casualties in 2015.
Not surprisingly, many locals were pleased with the results of the MOAB strike that seemed to indicate all wins and no losses.
“I talked to several IDPs [internally-displaced persons] in Jalalabad and they were all happy with the results so far,” shared Azimi, adding that he hoped that in the future the United States would perhaps consider alternative ways to fight Daesh. “I hear dropping such bombs can have harmful side effects on the residents and the environment.”