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U.S. deploying heavily armored battle tanks for first time in Afghan war

Images from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.

The Marines had wanted to take tanks into Afghanistan when they began deploying in large numbers in spring 2009, but the top coalition commander then, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, rejected the request, in part because of concern it could remind Afghans of the tank-heavy Soviet occupation in the 1980s. As it became clear that other units were getting the green light to engage in more heavy-handed measures, the Marines asked again, noting that Canadian and Danish troops had used a small number of tanks in southern Afghanistan. This time, the decision rested with Petraeus, who has been in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan since July. He approved it last month, the officials said.

Use of intense force

Although Petraeus is widely regarded as the father of the military's modern counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes the role of governance, development and other forms of soft power in stabilization missions, he also believes in the use of intense force, at times, to wipe out opponents and create conditions for population-centric operations. A less-recognized aspect of the troop surge he commanded in Iraq in 2007 involved a significant increase in raids and airstrikes.

"Petraeus believes counterinsurgency does not mean just handing out sacks of wheat seed," said a senior officer in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency"doesn't mean you don't blow up stuff or kill people who need to be killed."

Since his arrival in Kabul, Petraeus has permitted - and in some cases encouraged - the use of tougher measures than his predecessors, the officials said. Soon after taking charge, he revised a tactical directive issued by the commander he replaced, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to prohibit subordinate officers from placing additional restrictions on the use of air and artillery strikes.

"There is more top-cover support for appropriate aggression," said a civilian adviser to the NATO command in Kabul.

The adviser said McChrystal, who spent much of his military career in secretive Special Operations units, might have been reluctant to increase the tempo of night raids and airstrikes because it could have created the perception that he was not sufficiently supportive of the counterinsurgency strategy. McChrystal also sought to limit raids and airstrikes because errant missions had resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, stoking Karzai's anger and threatening to disrupt relations between the two countries.

"Because Petraeus is the author of the COIN [counterinsurgency] manual, he can do whatever he wants. He can manage the optics better than McChrystal could," the adviser said. "If he wants to turn it up to 11, he feels he has the moral authority to do it."

Despite Karzai's recent criticism of the raids and the overall posture of coalition forces - he said he wants military operations reduced - there have been relatively few reports of civilian casualties associated with the recent uptick in raids, airstrikes and explosive demolitions. Military officials said that is because of better intelligence, increased precautions to minimize collateral damage and the support of local leaders who might otherwise be complaining about the tactics. In Kandahar, local commanders have sought the support of the provincial governor and district leaders for the destruction of homes and fields to remove bombs and mines.

"The difference is that the Afghans are underwriting this," said the senior officer in Afghanistan.

Repeated complaints

But many residents near Kandahar do not share the view. They have lodged repeated complaints about the scope of the destruction with U.S. and Afghan officials. In one October operation near the city, U.S. aircraft dropped about two dozen 2,000-pound bombs.

In another recent operation in the Zhari district, U.S. soldiers fired more than a dozen mine-clearing line charges in a day. Each one creates a clear path that is 100 yards long and wide enough for a truck. Anything that is in the way - trees, crops, huts - is demolished.

"Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, "in effect, you're connecting the government to the people," the senior officer said.

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