M. K. Bhadrakumar |
The decision by the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, to drop the ‘mother of all bombs’ on an alleged ISIS stronghold in the eastern province of Nangarhar on Thursday was analogous to a dog marking territory. Urine marking is quite an effective way to claim territory without having to resort to dispute or confrontation. Dogs understand the meaning of urine marking and the consequences involved in trespassing specific marked areas.
To my mind, Nicholson’s primary purpose was to ensure that the wind would carry the stench of urine in the deep ravines in the tangled mountains of Nangarhar as far away as Moscow where an important regional conference on Afghanistan was due to take place on Friday, which the US is boycotting. Conceivably, it was a good try to let the Russians and the region know that the United States has neither any intention to wind up the war in Afghanistan and vacate its occupation of that country anytime soon nor is it going to concede its pre-eminence on the political and diplomatic chessboard to Russia and a bunch of regional states.
Read more: What is ISIS doing in Afghanistan?
However, Nicholson’s act also would have served another purpose. On Wednesday, on the eve of Nicholson’s mother-of-all-bombs act, President Donald Trump had disclosed in Washington that he was deputing National Security Advisor HR McMaster to Afghanistan to assess the situation for American troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The White House is obviously nearing the policy decision on whether to beef up the US military presence in Afghanistan.
Actually, the use of the mother of all bombs at this stage makes no sense militarily. Any general would know this is not the way to fight insurgencies. Remember the My Lai massacre in Vietnam? The US military has a record of industrial scale slaughter during wars in foreign countries. But excessive use of power is bound to cause heavy civilian casualties and that will be counterproductive in the Afghan war where winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population is critically important to deny the Taliban insurgents the local support base.
Besides, even by American estimates, ISIS is not a serious threat in Afghanistan. (Ironically, US propaganda severely questions the basis of the Russian perception that there is a potential ISIS threat to Central Asia and slams Moscow with geopolitical ambitions.) The LA Times has highlighted this point in an excellent ‘explainer’. Quite obviously, US’ real approach to the ISIS in Afghanistan remains an enigma. This is also the worry among the regional states — whether the US would incubate the ISIS, as had happened in Iraq and Syria, and use it for geopolitical purposes in the region. From that perspective, the mother of all bombs helps thicken the strategic ambiguity.
Frankly, there is no single credible explanation possible why Nicholson did this on Thursday – that is, taking him at his word that it was exclusively his decision and not the boss’s in the White House back home. At any rate, in political terms, this is not going to play out well in the Afghan bazaar where there is already pervasive cynicism about the US’ intentions in prolonging the war. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has reacted sharply and he certainly knows the public mood in his country.
Therefore, no matter what Nicholson might say in soldierly terms, this is ultimately a political act and not a military decision that was warranted or is justifiable under the circumstances. Simply put, the dog had no real urge to urinate on Thursday. It did nonetheless because that instinct to do so to claim its territory is instilled deep in its genetic makeup. To be sure, Nicholson has sent the message that the property in the Hindu Kush belongs to America and that it shall therefore not be trespassed.
But does the smell of ammonia deter bears prowling in the neighborhood? For sure, we won’t have to wait for long for an answer. The Russian news agency, Sputnik, carried two reports from Moscow regarding the internal terror growth and the extended format of peace talks. From the reports, it emerges that the bear cares two hoots that the dog had marked the territory only the previous day. By the way, Russians have since disclosed that they also have the ‘Father of All Bombs’, which outpaces Nicholson’s mother of all bombs ‘in terms of its destructive power and the blast radius’.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.