At 11.17 am on Saturday the 15th of June 1996 the Irish Republican Army detonated a large truck-bomb on Corporation Street in the city of Manchester’s main commercial district. The 1,500-kilogram device, constructed by experienced military engineers from the South Armagh Brigade and deployed under the aegis of the IRA’s GHQ in Dublin, obliterated nearby buildings and roads, leaving a crater fifteen metres wide in the city-centre. With five coded warnings issued by telephone some ninety minutes beforehand up to 75,000 people were evacuated from the area, reducing the number of injuries to 200, with no fatalities. The price of the resultant damage exceeded £1.2 billion over the next five years, the authorities in the United Kingdom scrambling to cover the unprecedented insurance, compensation and reconstruction costs from one single “block-buster” attack.
The guerrilla operation in the north of England was another escalation point in the Republican Army’s limited return to war following the breakdown in negotiations between Sinn Féin, its political wing, and the UK government in February of 1996. The end of the concurrent bilateral ceasefire announced in August of 1994 led the insurgency to implement a previously agreed strategy known as TUAS or Tactical Use of Armed Struggle, which it pursued for the next eighteen months (when the policy was leaked to the press in 1995 the movement disingenuously suggested that the acronym actually stood for Totally Unarmed Struggle. The events of 1996-97 proved that to be a falsehood).
By launching a number of shock-and-awe strikes in Britain the IRA had sought to send a very public warning to London that the acknowledged military stalemate in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland could only be resolved by political means. Which would mean a resumption of unconditional, face-to-face talks between Sinn Féin and the British state. This of course happened with the election of the new Labour government under prime minister Tony Blair in May of 1997. A final ceasefire by the Irish Republican Army followed in July. In hindsight it is obvious that the demoralising impact of IRA operations in the cities and towns of England in the mid-to-late 1990s was planned from the beginning as part of a larger strategy to force the UK authorities back into negotiations. The activities of the soldiers were designed to further the goals and objectives of the politicians when it came to the emerging peace process.
What then was the purpose of the devastating airstrike by the United States in the Achin district of Nangarhar, an eastern Afghan province close to the border with Pakistan? Like the Irish Republican Army, the US Armed Forces used a huge bomb, 9,800 kilograms of high explosives in a device known as a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast or MOAB. While the construction and deployment of the insurgent bomb in Manchester in 1996 probably cost the equivalent of €2000, including the price of the truck it was carried on, the MOAB dropped over Afghanistan stands at a hefty €15 million. And that excludes the aircraft it was ferried on and all the ancillary expenses. The high price of the GBU-43/B accounts for only twenty of them being produced since 2003.
The device allegedly killed thirty-six militants allied to a local branch of the Islamic State (IS) known as ISIL-KP who were living in villages and a network of underground tunnels in the area. However there is a great deal of scepticism being cast on that Pentagon-issued estimate. Or more accurately, guesstimate. With 600-800 fighters, the organisation is a minor player in the Afghan conflict, weaker than some tribal militias or drug-smuggling gangs. Which makes the military objective of the Trump-ordered attack something of a mystery. The United States just expended 5% of its MOAB stock in an attempt to vaporise three dozen peasant fighters belonging to a not very important grouping in a war it has already lost.
It has been suggested, rather plausibly, that the unprecedented use of a MOAB bomb was primarily intended to send a message to the perceived enemies of the United States, from Iraq to North Korea, that the Trump administration was not to be toyed with. If that is the case, then it has probably succeeded. Though like nuclear weapons, once the genie is out of the bottle it is very hard to put it back in again. The US is not the only one that can do big bombs.