The US has dropped a massive GBU-43 bomb, the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat, in eastern Afghanistan on a series of caves used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, the military said.
The bomb was dropped on Thursday from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, close to the border with Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said.
Also known as the “mother of all bombs,” the GBU-43 is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition and was first tested in March 2003, just days before the start of the Iraq war.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a press release that the strike was designed to minimise the risk to Afghan and US forces conducting clearing operations in the area.
But the ultra-heavy explosive – equal to 11 tons of TNT with a blast radius of 1.6km on each side – could potentially cause many civilian casualties.
The bomb landed in the Momand Dara area of Achin district, according to district Governor Esmail Shinwari.
“The explosion was the biggest I have ever seen. Towering flames engulfed the area,” Shinwari told AFP news agency.
“We don’t know anything about the casualties so far, but since it is a Daesh [ISIL] stronghold we think a lot of Daesh fighters may have been killed.”
General John Nicholson, the head of US and international forces in Afghanistan, said the bomb was used against caves and bunkers used by ISIL in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K.
“As ISIS-K losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defence.
“This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K,” Nicholson said in a statement.
ISIL’s offshoot in Afghanistan, created in 2015, is also known as the “Khorasan Province”.
Mark Kimmitt, a retired brigadier general in the US army and former deputy assistant secretary of defense, downplayed the use of the GBU-43, saying it is “just another tool the military has.”
“It allows us to go after deeply buried and hardened structures. It’s good use against tunnels and it’s also good use because it’s going to set off IEDs in the area,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kimmitt said it was not at all certain that “political authorities” were informed of the raid before it was carried out.
“Although the size of the bomb was a bit larger than normal, it was a routine military mission against a routine military target,” he said.
The White House would not confirm whether or not President Donald Trump had authorised the use of the bomb.
“Everybody knows exactly what happened and what I do is I authorise my military,” Trump told reporters.
“We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done their job as usual. So, we have given them total authorisation.”
US officials say intelligence suggests ISIL is based overwhelmingly in Nangarhar and neighbouring Kunar province, among tens of thousands of civilians.
Estimates of the group’s strength in Afghanistan vary. US officials have said they believe its has only 700 fighters, but Afghan officials estimate it has closer to 1,500.
Western and Afghan security officials believe fighters frequently switch allegiances between armed groups, making it difficult to know who is to blame for violence