WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that the he will not disclose the damage inflicted when the military used the largest non-nuclear bomb it ever has in combat against an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan last week.
The April 13 attack against an ISIS tunnel and cave complex in remote Nangarhar Province, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was the first time that the U.S. used the GBU-43, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb.
Mattis said that the Defense Department learned the lesson from the Vietnam War to not judge battlefield successes based on enemy casualties, which were often publicly inflated.
“For many years we have not been calculating the results of warfare by simply quantifying the number of enemy killed. You all know of the corrosive effect of that sort of metric back in the Vietnam War,” Mattis said to reporters while in Egypt.
“It’s something that has stayed with us all these years — that you don’t want to start calculating things, as far as what matters, in the crude terms of battle casualties.”
He also pointed to the last months of World War II, when large numbers of U.S. soldiers were killed, as evidence that body counts aren’t an adequate measure of success.
“We stay away from [battle damage assessment] in terms of enemy killed… Frankly, digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is probably not a good use of our troops’ time when they’re chasing down the enemy that’s still capable,” Mattis said.
Afghan security officials have said the blast from the 21,600-pound bomb killed near 96 ISIS fighters, according to The New York Times. There have not been a few, unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties resulting from the blast, according to The Guardian.
U.S. officials have been mum up until now on the damage inflicted by the attack. The top U.S commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, said last week that U.S. and Afghan forces had been fighting ISIS in Southern Nangarhar since early March and that the bomb was “right weapon against this target,” allowing the offensive operation to proceed.
The Defense Department has disclosed the number of adversaries killed in certain attacks in the past. Mattis, who took over as head of the military when President Donald Trump entered office Jan. 20, has not discussed body-counts.
On Jan. 20 the military said a B-52 bomber strike killed more than 100 militants at an al-Qaeda training camp in Syria, and that more than 150 al-Qaeda militants had been killed by U.S. strikes since Jan. 1. On Jan. 25, the Defense Department said U.S. airstrikes the week before in Yemen killed five al-Qaeda fighters.
Mattis would not say if he knew about the plan to use the GBU-43 ahead of time and refused to confirm reports that Nicholson ordered the use of the the bomb, saying that authorization has been delegated to “the lowest competent level.”
Mattis said he is in frequent contact with his commanders and the delegation down the chain of command allows for urgency and speed of operations in the field. He said he is confident that U.S. field commanders are capable of evaluating the resulting global messages of the weapons they choose to use.
“I have no doubt that they do,” Mattis said. “And if they didn’t, I’d remove them.”
Mattis made the remarks after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Egyptian Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhy before leaving for Israel in a trip that’s taking him through the Middle East and North Africa.
Mattis said his discussions with the Egyptian leadership left him confident in the continued partnership between the nations, which he described as a “bedrock.”