By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:12 AM
The U.S. military is sending a contingent of heavily armored battle tanks to Afghanistan for the first time in the nine-year war, defense officials said, a shift that signals a further escalation in the aggressive tactics that have been employed by American forces this fall to attack the Taliban.
The deployment of a company of M1 Abrams tanks, which will be fielded by the Marines in the country's southwest, will allow ground forces to target insurgents from a greater distance - and with more of a lethal punch - than is possible from any other U.S. military vehicle. The 68-ton tanks are propelled by a jet engine and equipped with a 120mm main gun that can destroy a house more than a mile away.
Despite an overall counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the use of troops to protect Afghan civilians from insurgents, statistics released by the NATO military command in Kabul and interviews with several senior commanders indicate that U.S. troop operations over the past two months have been more intense and have had a harder edge than at any point since the initial 2001 drive to oust the Taliban government.
The pace of Special Operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled over the past three months. U.S. and NATO aircraft unleashed more bombs and missiles in October - 1,000 total - than in any single month since 2001. In the districts around the southern city of Kandahar, soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division have demolished dozens of homes that were thought to be booby-trapped, and they have used scores of high-explosive line charges - a weapon that had been used only sparingly in the past - to blast through minefields.
Some of the tougher methods, particularly Special Operations night raids, have incensed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who told The Washington Post last week that the missions were undermining support for the U.S.-led war effort. But senior U.S. military officials involved in running the war contend that the raids, as well as other aggressive measures, have dealt a staggering blow to the insurgency.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss specific tactics, said the combination of the raids, the airstrikes and the use of explosives on the ground have been instrumental in improving security in areas around Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold that has been the focus of coalition operations this fall.
"We've taken the gloves off, and it has had huge impact," one of the senior officials said.
That, in turn, appears to have put U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander, in a much stronger position heading into a Friday meeting of NATO heads of state in Lisbon, where Afghanistan will be a key topic of discussion. It also will help the general make his case that the military's strategy is working when President Obama and his advisers conduct a review of the war next month.
A U.S. officer familiar with the decision said the tanks will be used initially in parts of northern Helmand province, where the Marines have been engaged in intense combat against resilient Taliban cells that typically are armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs. The initial deployment calls for about 16 tanks, but the overall number and area of operations could expand depending on needs, the officer said.
"The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower," the officer said. "It's pretty significant."
Although the officer acknowledged that the use of tanks this many years into the war could be seen as a sign of desperation by some Afghans and Americans, he said they will provide the Marines with an important new tool in missions to flush out pockets of insurgent fighters. A tank round is far more accurate than firing artillery, and it can be launched much faster than having to wait for a fighter jet or a helicopter to shoot a missile or drop a satellite-guided bomb.
"Tanks give you immediate, protected firepower and mobility to address a threat that's beyond the range" of machine guns that are mounted on the mine-resistant trucks that most U.S. troops use in Afghanistan, said David Johnson, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. who co-wrote a recent paper on the use of tanks in counterinsurgency operations.
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.