After dropping the MOAB, what next for Trump?

 abc.net.au  4/21/2017 7:53:46 PM  2  South Asia correspondent James Bennett

Updated April 22, 2017 08:19:46

American commanders in Afghanistan are not saying how many Islamic State fighters died when the largest conventional bomb in history was dropped on their hideouts last week — but experts say it, like the missile strike in Syria, points to an American president more willing to intervene abroad.

American troops reached the bomb site a day after last Friday's detonation, but have not confirmed reports that between 90 and 100 IS fighters were killed.

US military spokesman Captain Bill Salvin said "access has been restricted ... because it's a combat zone".

In a statement, he said that the US had "high confidence" no civilians were harmed.

Kate Clark, director of the independent Afghan Analysts' network, said there had been an "information blackout" from Achin, the IS controlled part of Nangarhar province, for some time.

"Journalists haven't been able to reach there because of the IS control and the threats to them, even local elders, they'd fled," Ms Clark said.

IS, she said, was capitalising on the official silence.

"IS, Daesh locally, have been bullish about the attack, they claim that they didn't lose anyone.

"It may be that this actually helps their recruitment."

Trump's Afghanistan policy still up in the air

The bomb's fallout for Donald Trump is being assessed in foreign policy circles.

William H Avery, a former American diplomat who has served in and written about South Asia, said the action was consistent with the President's promise to target IS.

"I think he is following up on campaign promises, leaving America first to one side for a moment — he did say that the wanted to bomb the hell out of ISIS," he said.

The New York Times has reported that America's military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, did not ask the President for permission to drop the bomb.

Ms Clark said Mr Trump had promised "to take the gloves off his military".

What is still unclear though, she said, is what he will do on the ground.

"One of the things he said on Twitter is 'why should we support people who hate us?'," Ms Clark said.

That has prompted many to speculate Mr Trump would end the "nation building" aspect to America's support for Afghanistan.

This week Mr Trump's national security adviser, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, visited Afghanistan and told local television network Tolo that America was committed long-term.

"What's critical is the strengthening of Afghan security institutions, the army and the police," said Lt General McMaster, an Afghanistan veteran.

"So what can we do together, with the national unity government leaders and the ministries to strengthen those institutions?

"Provide them with better support, with the continuing commitment of the United States to back them up on the battlefield."

Trump considering calls for more troops

The big question is whether President Trump will agree to his generals' request for more boots on the ground there.

America currently has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, bolstered by an additional 5,000 NATO personnel.

Military leaders are pressing for "several thousand" more.

Agreeing carries obvious risks for a President who campaigned on Americans' fatigue with long-running conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But analysts say President Trump's recent moves indicate he appears less willing to abandon the fight.

Ms Clark says reports of renewed Russian interest in Afghanistan will also likely factor into his decision.

"The thing about Afghanistan is for well over a century, its main attraction has been for countries who don't want someone else to control it," she said.

Mr Avery said concern over Russian influence was heightened following the Russians' defence of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad following the chemical attack in Syria.

He believes that would give the President more reason to stay the course in Afghanistan.

"I think you will see a willingness to get involved, to use US military might," he said.

"The Trump administration would make the case that that isn't in contradiction with 'America First' principles, but is really supporting them."

Topics: donald-trump, person, foreign-affairs, government-and-politics, unrest-conflict-and-war, afghanistan

First posted April 22, 2017 05:53:46

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