Friday, November 19, 2010
Well, I was going to follow up on this post on strategy, but didn't get to it. And then I was going to comment on this fantastic exchange at Kings of War, but won't be getting to it soon. But then I saw this Spencer Ackerman article at Wired and felt the need to comment.
Spencer apparently doesn't think much of the deployment of a company of USMC Abrams tanks being deployed to Helmand Province. While one of the original article's sources uses some misguided language (I thought we put "shock and awe" in the same discard pile with "mission accomplished"?), the fact is that tanks will probably provide an excellent tool in the COIN fight. I'm going to talk about this from a tactical perspective and then from the population-centric COIN perspective and why this is probably a good idea. As a caveat for our newer readers, I was a cavalryman in the U.S. Army in heavy units in Iraq. While this may cause bias, it also gives me the perspective and experience to understand how this actually works.
Tactically, an M1A1 Abrams tank can give you an edge. I'm not familiar with the terrain in Helmand, but save goat trails and narrow canal roads, these very heavy vehicles can get around surprisingly well. As far as firepower goes, it can put what is effectively an artillery round within a half a meter of where you intend it to go at targets of a few kilometers with relatively unobstructed fields of fire. I'm not sure why Spencer knocks the fact that the M1 is 30 years old and thus that it's precision is questionable. It is a line-of-sight weapon, not a bomb or artillery shell. If you can see it you can kill it. So yes, it brings a lot of highly accurate firepower that limits collateral damage.
You know what scares the hell out of dismounted insurgents? 70 tons of badassery that will make them dead if they mess with it. I could go on and on about this, but I'll cut this short. If the problem in Helmand is a highly-active insurgency that requires a firepower solution, then the M1A1 is what you want to bring to the fight. I'm sure the Marines will be pulling their hair out keeping this company running from a logistics perspective - they suck down fuel, spare parts are bulky and heavy, and recovering them off of the battlefield if they break down is a pain. But they pay professionals to figure that out and I'm sure they have it in hand. The bottom line is that the Abrams provides a highly mobile, well armored platform for long distance, highly accurate fire. To question that is to not understand tanks at all. It seems that the Marines need long distance, highly accurate firepower or they wouldn't be asking for it.
Now for how this behemoth of death and destruction fits into a pop-COIN operation. Tanks are designed to do two things: kill people and break things. That's it. What commenters like Spencer, who is hardly alone in this, often ignore about lessons learned from Iraq is that even the most population-centric COIN requires the killing of people and the breaking of things. Tanks were integral in defeating al Qaida in and around Baghdad in 2007-08, as were dropping bombs, etc. Tanks were often preferred because they could do these things with greater accuracy than bombs and with a smaller surface danger zone. This keeps the people happy, because they know as much as we do that we have to kill some people and tanks do it more efficiently with less impact on locals' lives.
So no, this isn't the opposite of Petraeus' "Get Out and Walk" guidance. This is part of the "kinetic" fight that needs to supplement the "hearts and minds" aspect of the fight. How a commander ties it in to his pop-COIN operations is by following up immediately after the tanks do their business with guys on the ground to take responsibility for anything that went wrong as a result of the engagement and to own the ground and deal with the locals and their issues. Does the Soviet use of their tanks make the use of the Abrams difficult? Yes, but that's why tactical controls are imperative. If the tanks are used for what they're intended - getting rid of the bad actors in Helmand with minimal civilian losses - then the Soviet legacy would become obsolete.
Will these 16 tanks "shock and awe" Mullah Omar into negotiations? No. But it has the potential to make individual Taliban groups not want to go to Helmand to fight the Americans while at the same time keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Again, go back to the Surge and scrape away all the crap that US tactics were all hearts and minds. It was as violent as it was benevolent. We've tried mostly benevolence for the last year in Afghanistan and before that it was mostly violence. If the tanks are used correctly and commanders follow up the controlled and carefully applied violence with benevolence, then maybe the USMC has a chance of turning Helmand around.