The “Mother of All Bombs” Killed ISIS Fighters—But Poor Afghan Farmers Now Deal With the Trauma

One researcher reports that local farmers believed the bomb was nuclear and that they’d been exposed to radiation.
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An Afghan boy peers through the razor wire outside the Achin District Center in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Nov. 5, 2011. Photo by U.S. Army/SPC Ken Scar via Wikimedia

When Spogmai Akseer heard the news of Thursday’s bombing of the region where she was born in southeast Afghanistan, she immediately thought of her young cousins. They still live in Nangarhar province, where her family is from and where the U.S. dropped the largest conventional bomb in its arsenal. She’s an educator with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, and for the past two years has been based in Kabul.

Nangarhar is a rugged, mostly rural region that shares a border with Pakistan. Many families were split when the border was drawn by the British in 1896. Residents mostly belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, and many are poppy farmers, surviving on small plots of mountain land. War has been constant for more than four decades.

“The way I see it, violence does not get fixed with more violence,” Akseer said. “I am thinking about my young cousins who looked up at the sky and saw the lights, the smoke, and felt the tremor of the bomb. I wonder what impact it will have on their mental well being.”

Akseer knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up with memories of war. She experienced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a child. “Decades later, I still have memories that I wish I did not have,” she said.

After the initial shock of the United States’ decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by dropping the largest bomb short of nuclear weapons, some analysts concluded that the real purpose of the attack was to send a message to world leaders about U.S. military might. For those who live in the region, however, the bombing has immediate consequences. It adds to the trauma of decades of living with war—and threatens increasing violence and instability.

The massive size of the bomb have some pundits thinking the attack was showmanship.

The massive size of the bomb has some pundits thinking the attack was showmanship, a message perhaps to North Korea, Russia, or China. “Most generally, use of a bomb of this size now is probably a broad warning to others to avoid brinksmanship with the United States,” Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at RAND, told WIRED magazine.

Adding evidence to that argument is the relatively small scale of the local branch of ISIS—known there as the Islamic State Khorosan Province, or ISKP. Andrea Chiovenda, an anthropologist with Harvard Medical School who conducted his research not far from the bomb site, said that ISKP has only a few hundred fighters, most of them foreign. Even so, he said, these fighters have brutalized the local population. “You might tell me you want to cut it [the branch] down when it’s still young,” Chiovenda said. “But there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not gaining traction among the people.”

Chiovenda said regardless of whether the bomb made sense from a military perspective, his concern is the well-being of local people.

When he spoke with contacts who live about 10 miles away from the blast site on Thursday, they contradicted statements by the Afghan government that residents were warned to leave the area. Instead, they said they spotted soldiers leaving the region and asked them what was going on. The soldiers told them a bombing was coming. That’s when they too left.

“[They] managed to know about it in a very random way,” Chiovenda said.

Some residents initially thought the blast was a nuclear weapon and were concerned about exposure to radiation, said Melissa Kerr Chiovenda, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who studies collective trauma in Afghanistan. 

Andrea Chiovenda added that the video of the blast released by the Department of Defense shows that the bomb hit cultivated fields and terraces—and what looks like a cluster of buildings. However, district governor Ismail Shinwari has denied the existence of civilian property near the blast site.  

“The likelihood is that those people who lost their fields have nothing else,” he said. “Arable land is very scarce. … Let’s hope it’s less devastating than it looks.”

Some researchers worry about other forms of damage, as well.

The cost of the bomb is already infuriating some local people.

“The scale of the explosive ordnance being used in this raid will not be lost on local Pashtun tribesmen, for whom the USA’s unmatched technological military is sometimes compared to that of an alien force appropriating the powers of god,” said Benjamin Walter, an Australian political scientist who’s worked with Afghan expatriates living in India. “Bombing strikes like this one will most likely be used by ISKP for propaganda purposes, to increase their recruitment and to delegitimize other insurgent factions like the Taliban.”

Walter is skeptical that bombs can solve Afghanistan’s problems. “The best way to stem the rise of [ISKP] and its ideology there would be to broker a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban,” he says.

But support from the national government would likely surprise most residents of southeastern Afghanistan. “This is a tribal and impoverished area,” said Pat Omidian, an anthropologist based in Pakistan who’s spent time in the area. “They welcome and care for guests in a way that the West cannot imagine,” she added. Yet most live their entire lives without ever seeing a doctor. Maternal and infant mortality rates are high.

And, as Melissa Kerr Chiovenda points out, nearly everyone suffers from longstanding trauma. “They say they almost don’t notice the sounds of the explosions and fighting anymore,” she says. “But they seem to sometimes break down at times when things just get to be too much.”

Spogmai Akseer put the region’s problems in even stronger terms: “Male members of my family I spoke with last month said that, once the sun sets, they don’t like to leave their homes for fears of ISIS and Taliban. They are very angry with the government, for not looking after them.”

In that context, she believes the cost of the bomb, estimated to be at least $170,000, is already infuriating some local people. “The money spent on this one single bomb could have fed hundreds of families and provided health care in dozens of villages. This is what a relative I spoke to this morning told me, as well.”

The news of the bombing felt like a step backward, she said, away from progress and toward more of the violence that has been getting worse for years. For example, she said her university was attacked in August and several students and staff members were killed.

“Some of us are trying very hard to make things better, but an attack like this reminds us once again that we are inside someone’s game.”

Updated April 15, 2017, to attribute research gathered by Melissa Kerr Chiovenda, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who studies collective trauma in Afghanistan.