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U.S. Isn’t Saying How Much Damage the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Did

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago By MUJIB MASHAL and FAHIM ABED
American forces and Afghan commandos in Asad Khil, near the site of the bombing in the Achin district. © Rahmat Gul/Associated Press American forces and Afghan commandos in Asad Khil, near the site of the bombing in the Achin district.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Since the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” on an Islamic State cave complex in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, American military officials have been circumspect about the bomb’s damage, but one voice has been filling the information vacuum in the region: Islamic State radio.

The reticence of the United States to discuss casualties and other damage from the 22,000-pound bomb concerns local officials in Nangarhar Province who supported the massive bomb after military officials said ground operations had failed to penetrate the Islamic State stronghold in the mountains of the Achin district.

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“I and other people have this concern — that why American forces are not letting anyone visit the scene of the bombing?” said Zabihullah Zmarai, a member of the council in Nangarhar Province who held a post-bombing news conference to announce his support. “The U.S. authorities should provide an answer to this question.”

Afghan security officials say that clearance operations are taking place around the site, and that Islamic State fighters are engaging Afghan and American forces, who are calling in more airstrikes to target the militants’ positions. There are also reports that the American military has kept even Afghan forces from the bombing site.

One senior Afghan security official in Kabul said on Tuesday that Thursday’s bombing killed 96 Islamic State militants, 13 of them major commanders. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, provided the names and basic information about the commanders, most of whom were from the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, but who also included some Indian citizens and Central Asians. However, the official provided no proof of the deaths or information on how officials reached the number of 96.

The United States military, despite repeated attempts, did not provide comment.

The Islamic State’s local radio outlet, which was unaffected by the bombing, continues to broadcast into Jalalabad, the urban center in the east. It broadcasts half-hour programs during the day and an evening program that often lasts more than an hour.

As early as the day after the bombing, it broadcast a call-in program in which voices of men who claimed to be fighters in the area who were not affected by the powerful bomb could be heard between rhyming Islamic chants.

“The media was expecting that this bomb would have killed all the Islamic State fighters or forced them to flee, but that is not the case,” the program’s anchor said. “After the big bomb, our warrior, brave youth became a shield in front of them.”

Islamic State radio, known as Voice of the Caliphate, has been reconstituted after it was destroyed last year by a targeted American drone attack. Afghan officials said that the earlier operation was run by five militants from the back of a small truck that switched locations often to avoid being targeted.

Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan expanded rapidly in 2015, before repeated Afghan military operations and American airstrikes brought them to a halt. Islamic State fighters are now estimated at about 700, down from 2,000 to 3,000, and their activities are reduced to mainly three districts in Nangarhar.

The tunnel complex in the Tangi Assadkhel area of Achin prevented military operations from eliminating the group entirely, American military officials have said in justifying the first use of the bomb, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

Naser Kamawal, another Nangarhar provincial council member, said the bomb did not seem to have succeeded in its mission. Afghan forces had not advanced past the areas they had cleared repeatedly long before the bombing.

“Why the bomb with such a big destruction had such few casualties?” Mr. Kamawal said. “If there was some 90 Islamic State militants, then why were our own Afghan forces not able to eliminate them in a military operation — what was the need for using such a big bomb?”

It was unclear whether any Afghan or coalition forces have made it to the bombing site five days after the attack. The senior Afghan security official said the day after the bombing that Afghan commandos had done so and, after clearing the site, had handed it over to American military forensic teams.

Mr. Zmarai, the provincial council member, said local officials in Achin told him that neither Afghan nor American forces had arrived at the site.

A spokesman for the Afghan commandos, Jawid Salim, agreed. “It is not true that the members of U.S. forensic are at the scene of bombing — no one is there,” he said. “We are in the area and we see everything.”

Afghan commando forces advancing the day after the bombing overcame resistance about a mile from the site but continued with operations in other parts of Achin instead of going to the scene, he said, adding that American airstrikes were helping them during follow-up operations.

Mr. Salim expressed satisfaction that the bomb hit what he called an important target, and he seemed satisfied by the security official’s report that more than 90 fighters were killed.

“They say it destroys everything within two miles, but that could be in plain land — in mountainous areas, the bomb may not have such big destruction,” Mr. Salim said, speculating, like so many other officials, in the absence of any concrete information.

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