Thursday, November 25, 2010

If tanks could make a difference, then USSR would still be a reality ….

As US and NATO prepare to leave Afghanistan with incomplete mission, the war tactics are quickly being revised. The United States military announced that it will be sending a company of Marine Tankers to southwest Afghanistan, bringing a much-needed armor presence to an asymmetrical fight. According to a New York Times blog, heavily armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, etc.) would be excessive instruments. This argument is not merely in the context of combat or even intimidation of locals, but the tracks of a main battle tank would most likely destroy the few poorly engineered concrete roads that facilitate the Afghan economy. It is not the question whether or not these tanks are tactical requirements of war in Afghanistan, the key question is whether the new tactical shift will bring the much awaited victory before the Americans start leaving the country where no occupation army was ever welcome.  Since 2003, coalition forces traversed the battlefield in Afghanistan, from pickup trucks, to Humvees, to up-armored Humvees, to MRAPs and now MATVs -- while the Taliban escalate their IED campaign by simply building bigger bombs. 

The allied forces could have learned a lesson or two from the history; if tanks could make a difference in Afghanistan then USSR would still be a reality today.

An article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Magazine says that a countryside littered with Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers is evidence enough that this armor vs. explosives escalation is a fool's game. While the Abrams tank will be able to deliver precision firepower at great distances, insurgents will easily be able to predict the few roads it can travel (lest we decide to demolish farmers' fields and irrigation canals) along with myriad lightly-skinned fuelers and maintenance vehicles the tank requires for sustainment. The article goes on to say that the US and allies actually need less armor, and need to be more flexible and unpredictable. Instead of dictating that no unit can leave its base unless in an MRAP or MATV, they must allow them to use Humvees, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and ruggedized pickup trucks when appropriate. Knowing their movements are being watched at all times, units need to use deception, such as varying the time of day and night they move, their routes of travel, and the types of vehicles in which they conduct missions, to keep the insurgents constantly guessing. Insurgents cannot possibly booby-trap and watch every road, trail, and wadi in Afghanistan but they can and do hammer us on the few roads that will support armored vehicles. 

This is a very unconventional war being waged in the most difficult terrain possible, and allies are responding very conventionally. Instead of allowing such ingenuity and its associated risk, the coalition's default response has been to add more armor and widgets to ever larger vehicles that are the very antithesis of basic counterinsurgency operations. The allies may not be able to "defeat" the IED, but they can make it irrelevant. To do so, the article says, will require to rely upon the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the junior leaders who are most in tune with the local dynamics and terrain, not on technology or defensive-minded mandates designed to prevent casualties at all costs. Marginalizing the IED will also require higher commanders to accept greater risk and allow their subordinates to sometimes make mistakes -- even deadly ones. But that's the only way to start connecting with the Afghan people, who are the ones who will defeat the Taliban in the end. It's time to start playing to win instead of trying to avoid losing.

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