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The North Korean government is famous for coming up with some peculiar theories. But have you heard the one about how the CIA and South Korea’s intelligence agency paid a “lumberjack” $20,000 to kill Kim Jong Un and his cronies with “radioactive” and “nano poisonous” substances? It’s a doozy.
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Seemingly out of the blue on Thursday, the US military for the first time deployed a bomb called the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), the third-most powerful explosive that America has ever used in battle after the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. The MOAB, or "Mother of All Bombs," is a ginormous, and somewhat crude, conventional bomb, weighing about as much as four Humvees and producing a small, nuke-style mushroom cloud when it blows up.
The target? An Islamic State affiliate stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump, some quickly argued, was just keeping a campaign promise to "bomb the shit out of" ISIS, and intelligence reports from the Afghanistan government say that's just what he did—36 dead ISIS guys, and no reported civilian casualties. But the decision is still puzzling: If using an almost unimaginably powerful weapon was meant as a promise kept to voters who craved ISIS blood, why shed it several countries away from the primary ISIS stronghold and de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, in a place where ISIS isn't even the biggest problem? And if Trump is so proud of the MOAB attack, why is he being—especially by his own standards—downright cagey about telling us whose idea it was?
To find out how the use of this bomb fits into the larger geopolitical scene right now, I talked to Faisel Pervaiz, who analyzes South Asian affairs for the Austin, Texas-based military intelligence firm Stratfor. Our conversation shed light on how a demonstration of might serves US diplomatic aims—particularly at a time when Russia is increasing its involvement in the region. But Pervaiz cautioned not to expect this bomb to shift the tide of America's longest war.
VICE: For starters, it's probably helpful to talk about how long we've been in Afghanistan.
Pervaiz: I always like to remind people about how long of a war this has been. I want to remind people that this war began October 7, 2001. Meaning this was before there was ever YouTube, Facebook [so] keep that in mind.
This bomb has been in the US arsenal since 2003, so almost that whole time. Why did the US suddenly use it against ISIS when the Taliban have been there for ages?
I think people think about the Islamic State, and their minds naturally go to Syria and Iraq, and reasonably so. That's where the most intense fighting has been, [but] this bomb, which was dropped in Nangarhar province in Achin district, was specifically dropped on tunnels that were being used by the Islamic State. So the first significance, from my standpoint, is that IS has branched beyond Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan, and they're a very real and resilient presence there.
So why MOAB them, if we're using that as a verb now?
When they go underground, of course, it becomes more difficult to attack them from the air. Part of the rationale in using a 21,000-pound bomb is that when you're using that bomb, you're almost creating a mini-earthquake. Your intention is to have the ground buckle and cave in on itself, and basically crush the people underneath.
Is there maybe any deeper significance to this move?
I think if you sort of move the dial along the spectrum, there are other events which are a bit more ambiguous in their interpretation. When I look at this bombing, I think about how something's going to be happening [Friday] in Moscow. Obviously, recently, we had those chemical attacks that happened in Syria. Of course, the two big countries that are sparring over the meaning of those attacks, and who is culpable, are the US and Russia: [Friday] in Moscow, Russia is going to be hosting talks on the war in Afghanistan. These are going to be the third talks that Moscow is hosting ever since December, and that's significant because that's showing that Russia is now deepening its involvement in another theater of war to try to gain leverage against Washington.
Say more about that connection—between the talks and the bomb.
When we drop a bomb that weighs 21,000 pounds—that's so big. I think a part of it, or some part of it, is the messaging and the symbolic significance that the US is sending out to countries such as Russia: that we are the premier military in the world. We are the biggest power. We have the tools and weapons to show you that this is the case.
What does Russia want out of this?
Russia is threatened by the Islamic State. Keep this in mind: sometimes it's important to add the nuance here, which I think your readers will appreciate, and that is not all insurgency is cut from the same cloth. When we talk about the Taliban, specifically the Afghan Taliban, it's a nationalist movement which is focused on conquering Kabul. Their focus is on Afghanistan. But when you look at the Islamic State, that is a transnational jihadist movement, meaning they want to lead a group across borders, and as a matter of fact, that's what they've done by getting into Afghanistan to begin with. So, yes, Russia and United States see a similar threat, but the problem—and this is where you're seeing both sides butt heads—is that Russia is also playing geopolitics. Why is Russia involved in Syria? It's because Russia is trying to increase its influence so it can use it as leverage with Washington in other situations that Russia and Washington disagree with.
So the US might be hoping this big bomb shakes Russia's confidence a little?
That's right. These events in international politics can have many shades of meaning, and it's always a challenge to figure out what factor carries the greatest weight. I think that is one factor.
Just last week, for the first time this year in Afghanistan, an American soldier was killed. This was a US special forces soldier. And that person was killed in the same province in the same district. [Though] I'm not saying that itself was the part of the decision making calculus.
Is a move against ISIS or its affiliates in Afghanistan also a move against the Taliban?
Absolutely! Mid-April is usually when the Taliban launch what they call their spring offensive. They do this every single year. When the weather gets warmer, the fighting across Afghanistan intensifies, and usually that means you're gonna see some big attack. In Kabul—in one of the urban centers, that's usually where you see some opening salvo in the year's spring offensive. [So] any action the US takes in Afghanistan, even if it's technically against another group like the Islamic State, it's also sending a very clear signal to the Taliban that we're still in the fight, and we're in it to win.
And would you guess that this will turn out to be a successful strategy?
I think this is an example of a tactical victory, but it's not going to by any means blunt the intensity of the war. You have the full fury of the world's most powerful military in that country for a decade and a half, and that has not ultimately extinguished the insurgency, so at the end of the day, this war is not going to be won through military means. All the sides know that. At the end of the day, the war ultimately will be won through politics. It's going to be a negotiated settlement, where the Taliban and the Afghan government, and all the parties involved are going to have to talk things out. That's the way it's going to end. And right now, the war is essentially in a stalemate.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Is the United States going to war with North Korea this weekend? The short answer? Literally no one knows. The longer answer? Yes, we are definitely going to war if a few crucial things happen that turn a dick-measuring contest between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un into a missile-dropping contest.
Yesterday, the US military dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal on Afghanistan. Nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, reports indicate that it killed 36 ISIS fighters and there were no civilian casualties. TV news stations have been playing footage of MOAB bomb tests from 2003, but the military just…
Anonymous senior officials in US military intelligence told NBC News on Thursday afternoon that if recent North Korean insinuations about another nuclear test turn out to be true, it is prepared to preemptively strike with conventional weapons. This comes after 38 North, a highly respected blog that monitors the North Korean military, analyzed a new satellite photo taken on Wednesday of a North Korean nuclear testing site, and determined that the site is "primed and ready" for a potential detonation.
On Tuesday, North Korea warned that a preemptive strike could trigger a nuclear attack on the US mainland. That statement came after the US Navy moved a carrier and three missile-armed destroyers to a position near the Korean Peninsula. According to North Korean state media, a high ranking North Korean official said the hermit kingdom would "hold the US wholly accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its outrageous actions."
President Trump on Thursday, tweeted a reiteration of a point he's been repeating since before his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, once again urging China to "properly deal with" North Korea. "If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!" Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister urged restraint on Thursday, telling a group of reporters in China, "Military force cannot resolve the issue."
Trump's missile strike against Syria last week appeared to give Trump a slight bump in his approval numbers, and was generally seen by the American public, including liberal critics, as a good move despite its questionable efficacy. On Thursday, the US military followed up the Syrian strikes by dropping a 21,600 pound bomb on an ISIS-affiliated target in Afghanistan—the largest conventional explosive the US military has ever used in battle.
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Check the news and you’re guaranteed to hear to about conflict in some part of the world. But there are a lot of weapon terms getting thrown around without explanation, and even people in the public eye are totally clueless about what these weapons do. Here’s everything you need to know about the MOAB, Tomahawk…
In the moments following Donald Trump's missile strike on a Syrian government airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack on Thursday, voices from within the Syrian conflict and around the world rose in condemnation and praise. Some of those who suffered the tyranny of Syrian president Bashar al Assad couldn't help but applaud the strike. To these Syrians, the reflexive denouncing of Trump's action how little some observers understand the complexity of the Syrian situation. Dismissing the move as imperialist intervention means minimizing the role the Syrian military has played in the conflict. One of the central elements of the war is that the one force that should have been safeguarding Syrian lives—the country's army—is the one killing them.
Remember that the war began in 2011 after Assad sent tanks in response to an initially peaceful uprising in city of Dara'a. This was one of several places where civilians flooded the streets daily to protest against the government and its oppressive policies. As a result, Dara'a was placed under a siege for weeks, a brutal method of punishing and suppressing civil dissent.
The government's perpetuation of repressive tactics across Syria further exposed that the country's leaders were not concerned with Syrian interests, but their own narrow need to hold on to power. Soldiers were commanded to open fire at peaceful protesters, arrest activists, and close down entire cities, towns, and villages. As this mass violence perpetuated by the government, some officers defected from the military, later forming the armed opposition.
In 2011, I was one of the thousands, maybe millions, of Syrians who joined the nonviolent demonstrations against the injustices of Assad's government. I still remember how, at the beginning, we were naïve enough to believe that the Syrian army would take the side of the uprisings and protect this movement and the people. But as we all know, of course, the opposite happened. We were faced with live bullets and bore the brunt of the army's brutality.
We were deemed terrorists and traitors, told that we deserve to be killed for raising our voice against the president. The forces who were so callously attacking us grew up believing that Assad and his father, Hafez, were some sort of gods, and that whoever expresses disloyalty against these deities deserves to be shot dead without even a trial.
The horror and the fear of the army wasn't felt just during the demonstrations. I remember how my heart dropped every time we stopped on a government checkpoint. I had to delete messages constantly, because soldiers had the right to go through our phones and laptops to make sure we were not participating in any anti-government activities.
The country lost its cohesion when the military no longer represented a national institution working for Syrian interests but a sectarian militia protecting the ruling family. Since then, other countries and factions—including the US and Russia—have insinuated themselves into the conflict, committing their own atrocities. But the original sin was the betrayal of the army.
Watch the VICE News Tonight segment about how a viral video led to protests in Russia:
For Syrians affected by this conflict, the feelings of relief do not mean that they are embracing yet another intervention into the affairs of their country. There are searching for a grain of solace in a long, traumatic war. The Syrian army itself is allied with foreign powers and has shown a willingness to murder civilians; is it any wonder some Syrians praise a strike against that corrupt institution?
Abdul-Hameed Yousef, a father whose twins were killed by the chemical weapons attack, told ABC News that he wanted to thank Trump, but asked, "Why one airport, one base?" After Trump's strike, I spoke to Tarraf Tarraf, a doctor in a village 12 miles from Yousef's town. He told me. "We will welcome any military hit against Bashar al Assad. He has been killing his own people for the past six years. However, I am aware that this hit is nothing more than a political statement. And we know this is a very limited strike, but for us, for the first time, we felt like someone is taking a step to do us justice."
For those who have not lived inside a war, it is impossible to understand the feelings of those who have, the mixture of rage and sadness that surrounds you at such time. After the chemical attack, my friends in the area told me, a rumor circulated among the families of victims that their children might come back to life after the gas wore off, and many refused to bury them, waiting instead for their lifeless cold small bodies to become warm again.
In the aftermath of the strike, anti-war marches were held from New York to London. Yet these protesters were largely silent when US-directed airstrikes targeting ISIS were falling on cities and killing civilians.
As a Syrian who longs for justice and who believes most on the left are committed to worthwhile causes, I don't think that this selective solidarity is malicious. It's a product of a bad analyses and lack of familiarity of the Syrian situation. Many protesters are ready to oppose any sign of US imperialism, especially when they hate the president leading that imperialist effort. Still others on the left are prepared to believe the Syrian government no matter how ridiculous its narrative—there are plenty of voices out there doubting that the chemical attack was Assad's handiwork.
Remember too that until last week Trump was prepared to work with Assad, despite the atrocities his government has committed. For his part, Assad once remarked "we will work closely with Trump in his war against terror." In places like Manbej, American troops have fought on the same side as Assad-allied Russians.
Trump continues to support a ban on Syrian refugees entering America, exposing the lie that he really cares about the victims of Assad's violence. (I should know, being an asylum seeker in America today.) Why would I believe that a man who blocked the admission of hundreds of families who were waiting for years in refugee camps is all of a sudden interested in humanitarianism?
At this point, what would actually help Syria? First, the world should understand that Asaad is the main cause behind this chaos. Secondly, all sides should work towards a ceasefire—a complicated and thorny but necessary undertaking. Third, we should insist on accountability for all war crimes and seek justice for all Syrians. That last in the most important—without a reckoning with the horrors of this war Syria will be unable to move on. Civil wars are ugly things, but and any military intervention, whether from the Russians or the Americans, in my opinion, will likely only make things worse.
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who later became a photojournalist with Reuters and covered the ongoing conflict. She is currently based in New York City, where she is a researcher on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing a degree at NYU.