Some in Afghanistan Question US Choice to Use 22,000-pound Bomb against ISIS


KABUL — US forces in Afghanistan have not yet assessed the impact of a massive strike on ISIS militants in the eastern part of the country, a military spokesman said Friday, raising questions about the already controversial decision to deploy a 22,000-pound bomb on the battlefield.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said three dozen fighters were killed in the attack, which used one of the largest non-nuclear bombs in the US arsenal, the GBU-43, against a network of tunnels and bunkers in the east.

A Pentagon spokesman said US forces would not release an official statement on potential damage or casualties caused by the strike, which was carried out in the Achin district of Nangahar province Thursday night.

It was unclear why the Afghan government released casualty figures but US forces did not. For its part, ISIS-linked Amaq News Agency denied that the bombing caused casualties among the militants, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online postings from extremist groups and others. ISIS offered no evidence to support its claim.

In Kabul, Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, a spokesman for US forces, said: “We are still conducting our assessment, and at this time have no evidence of civilian casualties as a result of the GBU-43 drop.”

Also Friday, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of US forces in Afghanistan, defended the strike as “the right weapon against the right target.” He said it “achieved its intended purpose,” which was to remove the tunnel complex as an obstacle to US and Afghan forces on the battlefield.

US and Afghan troops went on the offensive against the local ISIS branch in March, even as they have continued to battle a Taliban insurgency in the rest of the country. US and Afghan officials have said their goal is to “eliminate” ISIS in Afghanistan this year, but the Trump administration has not said whether it plans to commit more troops to the fight. After nearly 16 years of war, the United States and NATO have struggled with how to wind down the conflict here.

But ISIS affiliate, which is based in Nangahar, emerged relatively recently, surfacing about a year after the parent organization declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Since then, it has staged deadly attacks on Afghan civilians, particularly in Kabul, but has largely failed to break out of its stronghold in the east. There, the group uses the proximity to Pakistan, which is also plagued by militancy, to build up weapons stockpiles and connect with other extremist militants across the border.

According to Nicholson, the affiliate, known as ISIS in Khorasan Province, is made up mostly of Pakistani and Uzbek militants, along with some Afghan fighters who defected from the Taliban.

In Achin and other nearby districts, the group has terrorized residents, beheading tribal elders, assassinating security officials and closing schools. Even local Taliban commanders have battled the group.

Many of the district’s roughly 100,000 residents have fled, leaving few civilians in the area where the strike took place. No civilians were reported killed, according to US and Afghan officials. Still, some residents and those in neighboring districts described widespread damage and said they heard the blast from miles away.

“It was a powerful bomb. We felt it several kilometers away,” said Khair Mohammad Safi, police chief of the Achin district. Safi, who operates from a neighboring district for security reasons, said he could see flames from the explosion.

“The wave caused by [the blast] was strong. There was a huge fire,” he said. “This was the [ISIS’s] main stronghold. They were annihilated. We needed such a bomb for this place.”

But just this month, US forces announced that they had nearly decimated the group, claiming to have reduced ISIS-controlled territory in Afghanistan by two-thirds. The military also said it had killed about half of the affiliate’s fighters and carried out hundreds of airstrikes on the group’s positions this year alone.

Last week, Army Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, was killed in Achin by small-arms fire during a combat operation.

“The use of drones turned out to be very effective against ISIS” in Nangahar, said Aryan Youn, a lawmaker from the province, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. “If that was the case, why did the United States want to use such a sophisticated and powerful bomb?”

Local residents, she said, are worried about the impact of the explosion on their health and farmland. Achin is a heavily agricultural district, where farmers grow wheat, cotton and, intermittently, the poppy crop that is used to make opium.

In a statement Friday, the Taliban also condemned the strike, which it called a “show” by US forces that want to convince the world they are taking a strong stand against ISIS.

The United States had “no justification” for using such a powerful bomb during combat, said the statement.

The Washington Post

Thousands of Judges Purged in Turkey after Failed Coup Attempt

Istanbul- The day after rogue soldiers failed to unseat the government, some of Turkey’s top judges called an emergency meeting.

The 22 justices — known as the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors — convened Saturday in the Turkish capital, Ankara, which was the scene of heavy clashes the night before.

The council usually appoints judges and prosecutors and rules on cases of misconduct, which are then subject to review. But this time, the justices turned against their own and sacked nearly 3,000 judges, marking the start of a now-widespread government purge.

Stacked with supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the council even suspended five fellow members.

The targeting of Turkey’s judiciary offers a window into how swiftly Erdogan’s allies on the council moved to eliminate opponents, eroding the rule of law and politicizing a system that relies on a balanced administration of justice. With such sweeping dismissals in the wake of the attempted coup, that impartiality is now under threat.

Authorities have suspended or detained tens of thousands of bureaucrats for alleged links to the plot. Mass dismissals have also hollowed out the army, police, schools, universities and the state’s highest religious-affairs council, bringing the number of people in detention or newly unemployed to roughly 50,000.

About 800 judges and prosecutors have been taken into custody in at least 40 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, including two members of the Constitutional Court. An additional 262 military prosecutors have also been suspended. These dismissals represent nearly a fifth of all judicial officials, according to figures from the Turkish Justice Ministry.

“It’s total chaos. They are not applying any kind of law at this stage,” Gunal Kursun, assistant law professor at Turkey’s Cukurova University, said of the legal system.

On Thursday, researchers for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that a prominent human rights lawyer, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, had been detained at Istanbul Ataturk Airport. He was taken into custody with his wife, writer Sibel Hurtas, and transferred to a police station in Istanbul.

The Turkish government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Cengiz’s reported detention.

“Very concerned to hear from [Cengiz and Hurtas] they are detained at Ataturk airport,” Human Rights Watch’s Turkey director, Emma Sinclair-Webb, posted on Twitter.

Gutting the judiciary in the aftermath of a coup seems counterintuitive, legal experts say. The government ostensibly needs the legitimacy of the law to arrest and prosecute conspirators and would not want anything to jeopardize those convictions. Also worrying is the fact that the judiciary played no overt role in the bid to oust the government Friday night.

It was a mutinous faction of the military that hijacked aircraft, gunned down civilians and declared martial law by taking over state broadcasters. But having just survived a violent coup, authorities here are in no mood to tolerate dissent.

According to the president and other officials, followers of a Muslim cleric and Erdogan rival, Fethullah Gulen, were responsible for the conspiracy. For years, Erdogan and his supporters have accused “Gulenists “of infiltrating state institutions — including the judiciary — in an attempt to create a “parallel state.”

Gulen and Erdogan — both religious Muslims — were once allies against holdouts of Turkey’s staunchly secular and militaristic republic, founded by nationalist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

But when allegedly pro-Gulen prosecutors launched corruption probes into Erdogan’s senior ministers, the relationship quickly soured.

Turkey’s judiciary, then, emerged as one of the last institutions capable of challenging Erdogan, who had consolidated power as president with a comfortable majority in parliament.

But the feud also turned its judges into targets. Now, officials say, long-running investigations into the Gulen movement’s “penetration of law enforcement, the judiciary, and the military” have allowed authorities to move quickly to arrest the coup plotters.

One senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with government protocol, said the decisions to detain or suspend certain judges “are made based on financial transactions and communications between the individuals in question and the putschists.”

Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, has denied any role in the plot to bring down the government.

Historians and Turkish legal experts say the purge — both within the judiciary and more generally — is probably the biggest in Turkey’s modern history. The country has been through four successful military coups since its founding nearly a century ago.

Cengiz, the lawyer reported to be detained, said in an interview earlier this week that “during [the rule of] previous military juntas, there were similar purges, but never to this scale.”

While there has been no formal declaration, Cengiz said that in practice, “the constitution is suspended right now.”

Erdogan said in the aftermath of the attempted coup that “at every level of government, the period of cleaning this virus will continue.”

“Like the cancer virus, it spreads all around the government,” he said.

The Washington Post