ISLAMABAD - Afghan officials say the number of militants known to have been killed by a huge U.S. bomb Thursday has nearly tripled.
Officials say at least 92 militants died in the blast, up from 36 reported Friday. The area is still being cleared, so the death toll may increase.
There is no indication any civilians or military personnel were among the dead.
President Ashraf Ghani said Afghan and U.S. forces closely coordinated on the bombing, however his predecessor has strongly denounced the strike and the United States.
Karzai, others object
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday he is unleashing a campaign to force U.S. forces out of his country for dropping the so-called “mother of all bombs” on Afghan soil, calling it a “barbaric” act that was more aimed at testing “a new weapon of mass destruction” than targeting Islamic State fighters.
“I have decided as an individual to force America out of Afghanistan. Whether someone joins me or not, I have decided to prevent the American cruelty (against Afghans). They are not only killing our people but destroying the environment and disrespecting our honor,” Karzai told a gathering in Kabul.
Karzai’s criticism has been echoed by Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, who tweeted, “I find the use of the largest non-nuclear bomb, the so-called ‘mother of all bombs,’ on our soil reprehensible & counterproductive. If big bombs were the solution we would be the most secure place on earth today.”
The Afghan presidential palace responded to the criticism Saturday on its official Twitter account: “Every Afghan has the right to speak their mind. This is a country of free speech.”
And Afghanistan’s Minister for Security Reforms Amrullah Saleh defended Thursday’s strike.
“Destroying few notorious cave networks along with dozens of terrorists to save ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) personnel by dropping a MOAB (mother of all bombs) was a wise tactical decision,” Saleh, a former Afghan spy chief, said in a Twitter post.
US: right weapon for target
U.S. forces dropped the GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast, a nine-meter giant weighing about 10 tons, on the Achin district of Nangarhar province Thursday night. The strike was described as part of a campaign to destroy the Islamic State Khorasan Province group, the local chapter of IS.
General John Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, said Friday his forces had coordinated the attack with the Afghan government, “just as we have since we started these operations in early March.”
Nicholson said circumstances on the ground justified the use of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon ever used by the U.S. military.
“This munition, this weapon, was the right weapon against this target,” he said. “The enemy had created bunkers, tunnels and extensive minefields, and this weapon was used to reduce those obstacles so that we could continue our offensive into southern Nangarhar.”
U.S. President Donald Trump was asked Thursday whether the attack was intended to send a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was reportedly poised to conduct a new nuclear weapons test as early as this weekend. But Nicholson insisted the decision was based solely on the analysis of conditions in Nangarhar.
“It was the right time to use it tactically, against the right target on the battlefield,” he said.
Nicholson said the operation against IS in Nangahar has liberated more than 400 square kilometers since its inception.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this report.