KABUL, Afghanistan — A day after the United States military dropped its biggest conventional bomb on caves used by Islamic State affiliates in eastern Afghanistan, officials on Friday said dozens of militants had been killed, but they were still trying to assess the full extent of the damage. Residents said the blast was felt tens of miles away.
The strike on Thursday targeted a set of mountain tunnels in Achin District, a stronghold of the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, and it was the first use in combat of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs.” The bombing was part of an intense air campaign against the Islamic State, with American airstrikes in Afghanistan averaging as many as 10 a day in the first two weeks of April.
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said initial information indicated that 36 militants had been killed and three large caves destroyed.
Local officials in Achin said that Afghan commandos were advancing on the area and that smaller airstrikes had continued Friday morning.
“U.S. forces are providing air support and also support on the ground — there are some U.S. advisers with Afghan forces,” said Ismail Shinwary, the district governor of Achin.
Ahmad Jawid Salim, a spokesman for the Afghan Army commandos, said that the operation in Achin had been underway for 45 days but that progress had stalled in the Tangi Assadkhel area of the district, where the bomb was dropped. On Sunday, an American special forces soldier, Staff Sergeant Mark R. De Alencar, 37, was killed near there.
“Our foreign counterparts used all available weapons” to destroy the Islamic State havens in Tangi Assadkhel, Mr. Salim said. “But because the posts and havens of I.S. were very strong, it was decided to use this big bomb.”
Mr. Salim said that the Afghan commandos were given advance notice that the bomb would be used and that they pulled back about two miles before it was dropped. “We were getting reports minute by minute, and we were aware that the bomb would drop in 30 and then 20 seconds,” he said.
#USFOR_A GBU-43 strike against ISIS-K cave and tunnel systems in #Achin district, #NangarharProvince, Afghanistan, April 13, 2017. pic.twitter.com/2iuGOQy6tH
There were no initial reports of civilian casualties from the explosion, and Afghan and American military officials insisted that all precautions had been taken to avoid harming noncombatants. Most civilians have been displaced from Achin since 2015, when the Islamic State turned the district into a stronghold.
Mr. Salim said that there had been only one civilian family in Tangi Assadkhel, the part of Achin that was bombed, and that the family had been evacuated before the strike.
But Malik Kamin, a tribal elder from the nearby area of Shadal Bazaar, said some civilians were still in Tangi Assadkhel when the bomb fell. He said commandos who went in after the bomb was dropped found two disabled women and an elderly man there and brought them to Shadal Bazaar.
The bomb, which was dropped from a cargo plane, weighed about 20,000 pounds, and its force was felt across Achin and even in neighboring districts.
One tribal elder who lives less than two miles from Tangi Assadkhel said the blast was so strong that residents of his village thought it had been the target. Shrapnel and rocks as heavy as five pounds fell on his house, he said. A resident of the nearby Pekhe area said four houses there, about three miles from the blast site, had been completely destroyed.
Both residents spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation should the Islamic State find its way back to their area.
Haji Ghalib, governor of Bati Kot, a district about 20 miles from Achin, said he felt the blast there. “People in other districts also felt it,” he said. “From check posts in Achin some guys called me, and they were asking, ‘What was that?’ It was very big — for a moment, big flames were rising from the mountain, the whole area was bright.”
The Islamic State’s regional affiliate in Afghanistan, largely made up of former Pakistani Taliban, was rapidly expanding in eastern Afghanistan during much of 2015 and 2016. In March 2016, American military officials estimated that the group had between 2,000 to 3,000 fighters across 11 districts.
After multiple operations and extensive airstrikes, that number has been reduced to about 700 fighters across three districts, officials say. The efforts involved several ground operations by Afghan Army soldiers and commandos advised by American military special forces. But it was also accompanied by an intense air campaign that last year even used B-52 bombers, a staple of the early part of the war that had not been used for many years.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings in urban centers, most recently at the gates of the presidential palace in Kabul, the capital, on Wednesday, an attack that killed at least five people.
Some of the tunnels and caves in the complex bombed on Thursday dated from the fight against the British Empire, said Mr. Ghalib, the Bati Kot district governor, who was Achin’s governor for years. More tunnels were added during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and still more by the Islamic State.
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