Year in review: 2017’s most read articles

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Department of Defense photo

Look, I don’t know how else to say this: it’s been a hell of a year. The news cycle moves so fast that in the time it takes to research, write, reflect, edit, and publish, it’s already yesterday’s news. And in 2017, yesterday’s news might as well be last year’s news.

In a country where people are worried about what bad thing could happen to them next, it’s been difficult to write about what’s happening on distant battlefields or in the abstract within the national security apparatus.

So, I want to thank you, the reader. Your views, shares, and comments are sincerely appreciated. Thank you for suffering through dystopia fatigue and supporting Insurgentsia this year.

Thank you to my readers from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Australia. After the United States, you were my top countries for readership. I appreciate you taking the time to read yet another American perspective.

I also want to thank photographer Amber Clay. I used many of her striking photos in my articles this year. You can find more of her work here.

I look forward to continuing to cover political violence, terrorism, and small wars for you in the new year. And in 2018, I want to hear more from you. Send me your ideas for submissions here.

In case you missed it, here are 2017’s most popular articles:

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The Google Memo and its Implications on National Security

In August, an internal memo at Google written by a misogynist software developer went viral. Unfortunately, his sexist ideas aren’t only limited to Silicon Valley, they’re also present in defense circles.

Trump Announces Afghanistan War Strategy, No One Gives a Shit

In August, President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, but no one gave a shit. Distancing himself from the war under Obama, Trump proclaimed additional troops and no timelines, but no one gave a shit.

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Why Trump Supporters Think #covfefe is a Secret Message to Terrorists

In June, Trump’s fat fingers caused his undereducated supporters to study Arabic for the first time in their lives. The results were predictably hilarious and disastrous.

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Trump’s War in Syria: What You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

In April, Trump launched some cruise missiles at Syria and it made people wonder whether we were going to start a war there. Boy, were they in for a surprise.

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The MOAB and a Brief History of Bombing Afghanistan

In April, a big bomb was dropped in Afghanistan. Future historians will likely know it as the only bomb dropped in Afghanistan that Americans ever cared about in the decades-long war.

The MOAB and a Brief History of Bombing Afghanistan

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The last BLU-82, the predecessor to the MOAB, detonated in Utah by the 711th Special Operations Squadron in 2008 (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

The United States dropped a “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan on Thursday targeting Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) — its first ever use in combat.

In a statement, the Department of Defense said the bomb, designated the GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (the common name being a backronym), targeted and destroyed a tunnel complex used by IS in Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan.

The bomb has the largest explosive yield of any non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal at 11 tons. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the explosive capability equal to 15,000 tons. The blast radius is roughly one mile.

The strike took place at 7:32 PM local time in Achin district, where ongoing operations against IS in Afghanistan are being conducted as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and in the vicinity of where Special Forces Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar was killed earlier this week.

According to Ismail Shinwari, the governor of Achin district, the strike took place in a remote, mountainous location and there were no reports of civilian casualties. Recently there has been heavy fighting between Afghan forces and IS fighters in the area.

The weapon’s purpose as an air blast weapon, like the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” before it, is to destroy troop concentrations and equipment, clear explosives, and intimidate enemy forces. It is not a “bunker buster” designed to penetrate the ground or hardened structures. It was designed before the 2003 Iraq War to pressure Saddam Hussein.

While the trend lately in U.S. counter-terrorist airstrikes has been to use smaller, precise bombs and missiles delivered by drones and F-16s to conduct localized surgical strikes against single rooms or vehicles, the MOAB was kicked out of the back of an MC-130.

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A BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” deployed from an MC-130 on a test range in Utah (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

But this is not the first time large area weapons have been used in Afghanistan. In the beginning of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Daisy Cutters were used to attempt to destroy Al-Qaida and kill Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, also in Nangahar province. The operation was unsuccessful.

Afghanistan has been the target tens of thousands of airstrikes over the last 15 years. Unfortunately, the amount of civilian casualties per airstrike has risen since 2009, with 2016 the highest year on record. On average, one civilian was killed per every three US airstrikes.

Most civilian airstrike casualties occur in populated areas that the Taliban has infiltrated since most NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014. As of early 2017, the Afghan government only controlled 65 per cent of its territory.

However, airstrikes against IS in Afghanistan have been in less populated areas because the U.S. has not given IS room to grow. The U.S. increased its airstrikes against them in early 2016 when reports of thousands of fighters had established themselves in remote areas of Nangahar. Today, the U.S. estimates only 600 – 800 remain.

I have seen a lot of outcry on social media about the use of the MOAB, presumably versus smaller munitions, but a war is still occurring in Afghanistan whether a MOAB is used or not.

If Governor Shinwari is to be believed and no civilian casualties occurred, perhaps it is a legitimate tactical choice to use a large airburst weapon against the few remaining IS fighters in Afghanistan, especially if we do not want them to take population centers.

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A U.S. operator accompanying Afghan commandos (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

Most Americans do not like when American service members are killed overseas. So using a weapon to destroy defenses, IEDs, and potentially psychologically disaffect IS fighters before U.S. Special Forces assist Afghan forces in conducting a dangerous clear and sweep operation on the ground may not be a bad thing.

Time will tell if the weapon was effective (we will have an idea if it is used again), but we should not let ourselves be swept up by the media’s fetishization of military weaponry with sexy names.

The Mass Ordinance Air Blast may be the U.S.’s largest non-nuclear bomb, but at 22,000 lbs of explosive yield it is more comparable to the size of the extensively used drone-launched Hellfire missile (20 lbs) than to “Little Boy”, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima (30 million lbs).

One MOAB was dropped on Thursday. In 2016, the U.S. used so many smaller precision-guided weapons like the Hellfire — tens of thousands — that it could not replenish its stocks to keep up with with demand. Which weapon system has had more impact? You do the math.