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U.S. Drops Largest Non-Nuclear Bomb in Afghanistan. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: -- a potential Saddam target when we got it but also during the Tora Bora fight in Afghanistan when we were just entering that battle field going after Osama bin Laden.

It is, as Barbara stated, a concussive weapon which means the blast is what is the main effect of the weapon. It isn't like dropping a bomb and you're hoping to blow something up. You literally have the concussive effect of going into caves or into buildings where you have a very good analysis of the area and you know that it is a very large area that you want to destroy because of enemy activity there.

This bomb has been tested. The air force has looked at it for over a decade, actually, John, and it quite frankly surprises me that they used it now. But it must mean that they had a very good target to use it against. And instead of using artillery where you have an area fire weapon and multiple rounds or you drop a lot of either dumb or what we call dumb bombs which are not guided tour to target or precision bombs which are guided precisely to a very small area, this is something you would use for a very large area like a camp or a building that has a lot of targets in it or something where you want to cause not only a destructive effect but a huge psychological effect as well.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: You said you were surprised, General Hertling. Explain that for us. If surprised because it just -- it has been in the inventory but hasn't been used or surprised because there's a certain threshold for using this particular weapon?

HERTLING: No. There's no threshold for using it. And again, it is a conventional munition. But you have to ensure when you drop it somewhere, John, that there is no potential for collateral damage. When you drop this thing, it is going to destroy everything in the -- what they call the circular area of probability. The place where you drop it and the radius around that place you drop it, you've got to make sure you don't have any kind of friendly collateral damage or any kind of civilian casualties. So they must have had -- the Air Force must have had a very good target based on special operations forces targeting this weapon.

And the only reason I say it's a surprise is because normally artillery or more precise weapons can be used if you have a smaller target. This must have required a large piece of munitions for a very large target. And I would think it's probably some type of base camp or training camp or some type of facility that is doing something very unusual.

KING: General Hertling, stand by. I want to go back to this very point about the context. So just back to Barbara Starr, live of course at the Pentagon. Barbara, I'm sure there's new information about. Why this target?

BARBARA STARR, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I just wanted to point out as General Hertling knows a lot better than I do, he's absolutely right, of course. This is a weapon that would be used against a large footprint on the ground. We know there were tunnels there, likely other facilities. But it is the location also in Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan that is worth noting.

This is very close to the Pakistan border. This is an area where after so many years of fighting and operations by U.S. forces, it's still a border that is not really controlled in a very substantive way. And they have seen ISIS develop along the Afghanistan side of this border. So I would think there would be some concern about people moving back and forth into Pakistan.

Now, this is an ISIS affiliate, if you will. These are people who identify themselves as ISIS adherence, ISIS fighters in this very remote region of Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. But as -- again, I think General Hertling can explain probably better than I. This kind of fighters, they often identify themselves at different times with different loyalties. So the fact that they say they're ISIS, it's still going to be the case that the U.S. doesn't want these type of insurgents, these typical of terrorists going back and forth across that Pakistan border.

So, they had been watching Nangarhar, and that's why you had troops up there over the last couple of weeks, and again where that special operations soldier died a few days again a gunfight, it's exactly why you have them up there. It may well be that this remote area, you know, you get to the point where operations on foot just aren't going to make it if the fighters retreat into their complexes, into their mountain hideouts, into the very, very remote areas. It becomes much tougher for U.S. and Afghan forces on foot to be able to operate up there over long periods of time.

It may be the case that this may have just added up to -- they looked at it and decided this was the way they wanted to get rid of this target once and for all and it also, again, we've talked about it so much in Syria and Iraq, it sends a message, it sends a message to insurgent that the U.S. military will come after them, John.

[12:35:20] KING: It certainly does send the message. Barbara, stand by if you can. If you need to sneak off to do some reporting, just let our producers know as we bring in the conversation.

CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, he's joining us from Erbil, Iraq. But Nick, you're obviously very familiar with this region and more broadly with the fight against ISIS. When you hear Barbara Starr talk about the use of this weapon that the Pentagon has never used before, this giant bomb on what they believe to be a camp and tunnels of an ISIS affiliate, what does it tell you and what can you tell us specifically about this area of Afghanistan?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it gives you a snapshot really of quite how desperate the fighting has got in Afghanistan. This is no small measure for the U.S. military and that price of collateral damage you heard must have weighed heavily on the minds of those deciding whether or not to use massive ordinance like this.

Action in the area we're talking about has been populated, but it also a place that ISIS has moved into and kicked people out of their homes from as well. In fact, I actually interviewed a while back some Taliban fighters who had in fact been recruited by the Afghan government to fight ISIS in that particular area to kick them out.

Now actually in this very remote, it's in one of the remotest parts of the world. Frankly Nangarhar is a place where the Americans tried desperately to hold bases at certain times some of the remotest parts of the world.

An action itself has been the sort of main focal points and stronghold of ISIS since they sort of first raised their head about two years ago now. They kind of began it seemed to come across the border from Pakistan. Many Afghan analysts suggested they sort of harnessed some of the young angry energy in Afghanistan that was disillusioned with the Taliban insurgency. It's been going for years, decades now almost, and began to build up in numbers, to get a following, to get money too. They had a lot of cash to attract people to their ideas.

Action became one of their key areas. They moved to other villages around there as well. They've been there long enough to potentially grow a ton of network. What we've seen here in Iraq how tunnels and in Syria as well is such a vital part of keeping away from the drones that the coalition or the U.S. and Afghanistan will fly to try and hunt them out.

But last year, the Afghan army with an awful lot of U.S. support moved into action, did a pretty good job of kicking a lot of ISIS out there, put them on their back foot, but then ISIS have returned. And they're not just returned in terms of territory. They've returned as an ideological brand with some force in Afghanistan.

So I say the Taliban isn't as popular as it used to be. It's broad, it's fractured, it's become more criminal to some degree. And I think perhaps to some wolf's minds the purity of the ISIS brand has appealed. And we've seen them attack a key hospital in Central Kabul right across from the U.S. embassy in just the last month or so and more recently a bomb near the defense ministry.

They're probing into the capital. They're trying to show how powerful they are. As Barbara said, ISIS will -- there was different franchise. This is I.S. Khorasan, Khorasan being sort of historical name for Afghanistan and Pakistan where this extremist group wants to plant its roots. We don't always know who they are. They could be central agent figures disenfranchised from vital elsewhere.

I should bear in mind too, there's an awful lot more Al-Qaeda concerns in Afghanistan than there were three or fours years ago. I remember back in 2010, 2011, the U.S. forces would try and suggested they got the Al-Qaeda under control. That's very different to the noises you hear now.

Key Al-Qaeda sympathizer is now the pretty high level in the Taliban ranks, the military commander, Siraj Haqqani. And I think that's got many concerned that Al-Qaeda are getting breeding room again in there. So while we say ISIS, there may be other extremists in this, their brothers in arms so to speak.

But the fact that such a massive bomb is being dropped in action presumably shows they felt they had little choice. It perhaps shows the nature and extent of a threat they thought this tunnel camp potentially posed. And it may be also shows as well how much are the gloves are off. But potentially ideas which under the painstaking rules of civilian casualties would have been inconceivable potentially three or four years ago.

And I don't -- I must stress we don't know at this point any collateral damage but we do know if you a drop a bomb that size you don't really get to pick and choose who you hit. We do know that potentially this kind of firepower is now on the table as a weapon in a war as exhausting as fractured and staggeringly complex. And for the U.S. financially exhausting, emotionally exhausting in blood and treasure at Afghanistan has be. It is still their longest war, John. You have to remember combat operations haven't really ended there.

KING: Combat operations really haven't ended there. And President Trump, the new president of United States, Nick, as you all know facing big decisions about continued U.S. military presence, the NATO role in Afghanistan.

I want to quickly recap for our international viewers who just joined us. Dramatic breaking news on CNN. First reporter, our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, the United States has dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb. Its largest non-nuclear bomb dropped by the United Sates.

[12:40:06] Right there you see it in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. It is an MOAB. It is a 21,600 pound GPS guided munition, most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. Air Force arsenal dropped down. What Barbara Starr tells us the Pentagon says is an ISIS camp complete with tunnels underground in this area of Afghanistan.

We'll continue to gather new information on this dramatic breaking story. We're going to take a quick break "Inside Politics. We'll be back in just a moment.


KING: Breaking news here for you at CNN. In receipt hours, the United States air force has dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on what's believed to be an ISIS camp. Right there you see the red drop, Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. A major escalation by the Trump administration. Let's go straight to our senior Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, you broke this news a short time ago. You've been doing some additional reporting on the targeting in the first ever use of this massive weapon. What's the latest?

STARR: John, what we now know is the authority to conduct this air strike had to be approved at the four star level by General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command. Someone very familiar with Afghanistan.

[12:45:07] This area in Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan quite close to the Pakistan border, we now have additional information from the U.S. military. They went against a tunnel and cave complex in this remote mountain region that ISIS had basically retreated to. They were able to strike this tunnel and cave complex with this very large, the largest non-nuclear bomb the U.S. has in its inventory and they say still be assured that they weren't striking civilians or other Afghan or U.S. special operation forces still in the Nangarhar region.

The U.S. has been up in that region for several weeks now trying to work to, as they say, clear out the ISIS forces there. It has been a deadly operation for them. So I think clearly the military objective was to drop this bomb and basically get it over and done with and get the ISIS forces killed off in that region. Not let them escape back across the border to Pakistan.

A little bit unusual I still have to say. We have not ever seen this bomb used in combat. As General Hertling was saying a short time ago, this is something the U.S. had worked on for probably a decade. There's video of the extensive testing of it, but they've never used it. It had been secretly in Afghanistan for some time we are told.

Our Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne finding out that it had been there. There had been an aircraft there. It had been stationed there waiting for the right target to come along to use it. And when they flew the mission just a few hours ago, it didn't come from overseas. It was a cargo aircraft and the bomb already located in Afghanistan that they used. So they obviously had in mind to keep this secreted away, if you will, and be able to pull it out of inventory and use it when they found the right target. Apparently a few hours ago they felt that they did. John?

KING: And Barbara, just from your experience or from what sources are telling you this afternoon, obviously you have to let the event clear and then you do a battle damage assessment to see what you've got on the ground, how success you were and what the follow-up challenges are. Any sense of how long it will take for that assessment to be made?

STARR: Well, I think in the daylight hours, they will be flying and it's -- looking at the clock over here, it's nighttime now. Dark in Afghanistan. They will flying reconnaissance over the area, drones, aircraft. Some of them will have night time capability but they will want to take a very close look at it in the daylight hours and see the level of the damage that they were able to cause. I think for two reasons, John. One, to absolutely see that the target is destroyed and that they were able to destroy it. But again, because they've never used it in combat, this will be something that intelligence analysts will want to really pour over and make sure the weapon actually worked as designed and as expected. This is a first. So, they're going to want to take a very close look at it and get all the intelligence they can, analyze exactly what damage they were able to inflict. John?

KING: An important point. Barbara, thank you for the fabulous reporting. We'll get back you to as developments occur.

I want to bring into the conversation our military analyst Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Colonel, let's pick up on what Barbara just left off. If you're sitting there planning an operation and people are bringing you your options and you decide to use this, the mother of all bomb as it's known in shorthand, largest non-nuclear bomb the United State Air Force has in its arsenal. Take us through both the military implications of that, consequences of that and perhaps the psychological message you're sending in same time.

RET. LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, this bomb is 11,000 -- it's 11 -- sorry, 11 tons of TNT, so it's going to set off an enormous blast. It will feel like a nuclear weapon to those anywhere near the area.

So there's the psychological thing. But you have to figure out what weapon you want to use when a target presents itself. And in this area, you know, mountains and caves and this tunnel complex that they're very concerned about, you want something that's going to be able to get a blast effect into those caves, into those tunnels and this is the weapon to do that. The overpressure from this weapon will send shock waives through this tunnel system and it will kill almost everybody in there. That's why you use this particular weapon. It is an untested weapon. We never used it before, so it will be interesting to see how it actually works in a combat environment. It basically pushed out the back of a C-130. I think it weighs out at about 25,000 pounds when it comes off the aircraft.

[12:50:02] KING: And so if you're talking about a big underground tunnel complex, describe for me sort of if you're sitting in the room planning this out. You say if you're in a tunnel, no matter how far underground or how deep. I mean, what is the capacity if you have a large underground complex like this, you can kill everybody?

FRANCONA: Well, it depends on, you know, the proximity of the blast to the tunnels and how extensive the tunnel network is. But when you drop this thing in the middle of an area where you've got tunnel exits, that blast is going to ripple through this and cause such an overpressure that it will kill, you know, anybody within a certain range. We don't know what that range will be but it will be hundreds of meters.

KING: All right. Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, we appreciate your expertise and insights. I just want to come quickly into the room here. The dramatic breaking news changing our conversation today. What does it tell us about the new commander-in-chief and the questions he faces in Afghanistan? He just said yesterday he's sending his national security adviser to Afghanistan to make big choices about the continued U.S. military presence.

JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: And really interesting because we actually haven't heard much from Trump both as a candidate and since taking office about Afghanistan. It's the country's longest war and yet one that hasn't gotten a lot of attention compared to ISIS and some of the other conflicts that he's talked about. But clearly it shows that he is as we know after the Syrian strikes, he is willing to use force in quite dramatic ways.

ABBY PHILLIP, THE WASHINGTON POST: And one of the things the President has done according to folks in the Middle East region and also according to military officials is given the military more agency over combat decisions, allowing them to do more and not sort of holding back. I mean, the Obama administration really had a very high bar for engagement in part because what he wanted to do was withdraw from some of these wars.

Trump is very much allowing the military folks on the ground to make decisions about what's necessary to defeat ISIS which he -- which in some ways you could look at this as a fulfillment of his promise to really prosecute that war in a more aggressive way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he has surrounded himself by generals and there is significant for anything. He listens to them. It will be fascinating to find out in the coming days the conversations that were held in advance of this and who he was listening to and who was giving him recommendations.

JONATHAN MARTIN, THE NEW YORK TIMES: And judging for an hour, if there's anything that Trump promised during the campaign that all those chemicals at this table that he was going to bomb the stuff out of ISIS. You know, he didn't use that word.

This is not a kind of new occurrence here. This is something he's talked about. His policy views are often incoherent, but he generally does not like land wars and does prefer projecting American power when it comes to folks who are hard threats to this country. And if he can by, again, using -- you know, from the air, from the sea rather than boots on the ground and doing it in a very demonstrative way and clearly that's what's happening.

KING: Clearly that's what's happening today. If you're just joining us, dramatic breaking news, the Pentagon using for the first time its largest non-nuclear bomb dropped on the camp -- ISIS camp in Afghanistan.

That's it for "Inside Politics." Appreciate your time today. So just breaking news. A reminder standing by for the White House press briefing, no doubt this will come up in Sean Spicer's briefing just moments from now. The dramatic move by the Pentagon in Afghanistan.

Wolf Blitzer is in the chair. He'll pick up our breaking news coverage right after the break.


[12:57:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We're following breaking news right now as we keep an eye also on the White House briefing room. At any moment, we expect to see the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer come to the microphone to brief reporters. There's a lot certainly for Spicer to sift through today for President Trump's of course change on NATO, the threat from North Korea and the expected cooperation with China.

Plus the fallout from Secretary of State Tillerson's meetings with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And reaction to an interview released this morning with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But first I want to go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon. Also standing by our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh from Erbil in Iraq and our CNN military analyst retired General James Spider Marks. So Barbara we're now learning about a major change in U.S. military action in Afghanistan with the dropping of what's described as the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat. You broke the story. Tell us about it.

STARR: Wolf, quite an extraordinary and sudden turn of events here at the Pentagon today. We learned a short time ago for the first time in combat the U.S. military dropped a 21,000 pound bomb in eastern Afghanistan to destroy a complex of caves and tunnels it says was being used by ISIS fighters in this area of Afghanistan close to the Pakistan border in an area called Nangarhar province.

Let's talk about this weapon for a minute. Its formal name is the massive ordnance air blast bomb, MOAB. But I will tell you, inside the air force, inside the military it quite seriously is referred to as the mother of all bombs. 21,000 pounds. It is an air blast weapon. It penetrates a little bit, but this is not the typical bunker buster that we've all known about for so many years. It basically detonates and the damage is caused by massive blast in the air.

This bomb is so heavy. It is put on board a special operations cargo plane and basically pushed out the back. They dropped it. They've been looking at that target for some time. It's an area where U.S. and Afghan forces have been trying to get rid of, kill off the ISIS fighters in this area. A U.S. special operations soldier was killed there in combat just several days ago.

This is an area they wanted to get after very badly. Very remote. Very mountainous. ISIS retreating into caves and tunnels, so it's becoming clear that this was a weapon they thought they could use here and get the effect they wanted.

All of these, Wolf, comes as the Trump administration, in fact, is considering the possibility of sending additional troops to Afghanistan, U.S. troops to help train the Afghan forces even --