Tanks in Afghanistan: Bad Idea for US and Afghan Army

In the fights with western Indians, the U.S. Army was able to employ artillery very rarely, for the simple reason that the Indians refused to concentrate or stay put long enough for it to be used … The narrowness of the conditions under which artillery is genuinely lethal were well observed by a party of Sioux visiting Washington, D.C. in 1870. To emphasize the White Father’s might, government officials took them to see a huge coastal artillery gun firing into the Potomoc. The Sioux were unimpressed: it was a monstrous weapon, all right, but “nobody with any brains would sit on his pony in front of it.”

Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization

In November, 16 M1-A1 Abrams tanks were brought to Helmand Province. Now, the Afghan National Army has asked for armored personnel carriers — and according to President Hamid Karzai, they’re getting them.

But heavy weapons are not going to help us or the ANA win the war. In fact, they are more likely to accelerate the losing of the battle with the Taliban. American officers training the ANA whom I’ve spoken with in the course of seven embeds in Afghanistan all but unanimously think that the ANA ought to be a light, maneuverable force like the enemy it faces. Rather than tanks or APCs, they need light all-terrrain vehicles that can go up the almost ubiquitous rugged mountains of the region.

It’s bad enough that American troops are all but imprisoned in their MRAPs and other large, cumbersome vehicles that break in rough terrain. If the ANA follows our lead, they will face our problems: vulnerable to mines, confined to level terrain, lacking in situational awareness and access to the local population.

One of the young officers I’ve come to know through embeds in Khost and Zabul, Major Derrick Hernandez, has experience working with the Afghan police and army in both provinces. He comments,

We need to be careful on how we train and shape the Afghan Security forces. We need to ensure that we are leaving the Afghans with a sustainable military and police force. If we create a mirror image of our Infantry units, then our weaknesses (IEDs, VBIEDs, an isolated populace that allows the enemy to move undetected, predictable patterns, etc) will ultimately become the Afghan Security Forces’ weaknesses. The Afghans’ strengths are their mobility, they can drive with Ford Rangers and motorcycles exactly where the Taliban stage and operate out of, they are not as confined to roads as the US Army.

Supposedly the 68-ton Abrams tanks will be used to provide overwatch for American ground troops — they have a 12,000-foot range for their 120 mm guns — as well as to destroy houses packed with explosives by insurgents. At 26 feet long and 12 feet wide, the Abrams can only be used on Afghanistan’s plains and deserts, and it is being employed by the Marines in Helmand because the terrain is appropriate. But apart from the psychological effect of tanks on the Afghan people, there is a very real issue of what the Abrams’ deployment says about the war. The point was to avoid getting into a situation where we are “killing our way out of a counterinsurgency.” There were no tanks in Afghanistan in 2003, when I was able to travel alone on local buses across broad stretches of Afghanistan that are now deemed unsafe.

The embrace of heavy, Fulda Gap–style armaments at this stage in the war is a sign of conceptual exhaustion. We can and must do better.

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