The gang at Small Wars Journal has been weighing in on the recent decision to deploy 14 M-1A1 Abrams tanks to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. The clash of Titans in the comments section involves such minds as Major Neil "Cavguy" Smith, Major Mike Few, Dave Dilegge, and Frank Hoffman.
Needless to say, the US Army can be somewhat passionate when it comes to tanks, and the armor corps in particular. Thus, emotions ran high among the ex-tankers at Ink Spots, in an article entitled "Tanks in Helmand: Great Idea or Greatest Idea?".
Some, such as Foreign Policy's Michael Waltz, have decried the use of tanks in counter-insurgency campaigns, while others sing their praises. After all, no matter how skilled one is at negotiations and tribal shurgas, counterinsurgency will inevitably resemble the mailed fist more than it does the velvet glove at times. In those instances, it never hurts to have an M-1 Abrams on your side.
I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. Waltz does bring up a very salient criticism of tanks, and of the US military's new line of armored vehicles in general. Counterinsurgency efforts generally thrive on dismounted troops interacting with the population. In fact, David Kilcullen has frequently noted that the "commute to war" approach provides counterinsurgents with little situational awareness.
These difficulties are compounded in Afghanistan, as armored vehicles such as the MRAP and M-1 Abrams are unable to traverse much of the rugged terrain. Waltz' coverage of Afghanistan took him to a mountaintop village governed by the Mangal Tribe. The Mangal's territory occupies a strategic blocking point which separates Pakistan from Khost Procince. With US forces unable to reach the village by MRAP, the region has fallen victim to Taliban intimidation, control, and indoctrination. For the past year and a half, the Taliban have used the area as a training camp, and manufacture scores of improvised explosive devices.
Thus, as the counterinsurgency manual points out, paradoxically, "the more you protect your forces, the less secure they may be".
Nevertheless, in an overall supporting role, tanks still pack quite a wallop, and might make insurgents think twice before attacking. Their role in offensive operations is also unparalleled as well. The Canadians and Danes have figured this out already, using their Leopards to great effect--the Canadians most notably so in Panjwali, Kandahar in 2006.
And while, ultimately, the best defense against roadside bombs involves attacking and disrupting those that plant the devices, these efforts are hardly foolproof. Let's not give up the armor just yet.
Thus, it's not the size of one's schwartz that counts in counterinsurgency. It's how well one handles it. Infantry-centric, yes. But don't forget the tanks.
Addendum: Rex Brynen did identify a puzzling statement in the original Washington Post article, though.
Although military officials are apologetic [from tanks] 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.Oh, they'll make contact with some government, all right. But my guess is that grievances won't be filed through the local Afghan government, but rather, the Taliban.
(I'm surprised the Great Satan's Girlfriend hasn't pontificated on the recent "Panzerfaust" in Helmand. Courtney, I expect better out of you...)