The Pentagon’s decision to deploy heavily armored battle tanks to Afghanistan is being hailed as a step in the right direction by military and civilian advisers in that war.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, who recently participated in an assessment of the situation for the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, welcomed news of the deployment.
“Many of us had been scratching our heads over why [the tanks] hadn’t been sent before, given the success we enjoyed with them during the counterinsurgency in Iraq,” Gen. Keane said at a discussion at the Institute for the Study of War on Friday.
A company of 14 M1A1 Abrams tanks along with 115 Marines to crew them will be deployed to southwest Afghanistan in December.
Gen. Keane said the tanks had been effective in Iraqi cities, especially when coupled with ground troops.
“I think the commanders recognized that a tank accompanied by infantry is a formidable weapons system,” Gen. Keane said, adding, “You can compel other people’s will just by its presence. … And it also provides protection for our troops.”
The Washington Post first reported the Pentagon’s decision to deploy the tanks on Friday.
Gen. Keane said the Afghan Taliban does not as yet have adequate firepower to defeat the heavily armored tanks.
Max Boot, an adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the decision by Gen. Petraeus to send tanks to Afghanistan “blows a big hole in one of the myths of population-centric counterinsurgency.”
“Successful counterinsurgency combines attempts to reach out to the population with very hard-headed kinetic action to capture and kill insurgents,” Mr. Boot said, adding this is precisely the strategy being deployed by Gen. Petraeus.
According to Western officials who closely follow developments in Afghanistan, a surge of U.S. troops is beginning to produce results.
One of the officials, who discussed developments on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the press, said it is becoming evident that the Taliban are “increasingly on the back foot.”
However, an Afghan official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, cautioned that this could be a “tactical move” on the part of the Taliban who may be biding time until coalition troops start to withdraw.
“The Taliban know they have time on their side,” the Afghan official said.
Despite efforts by the Obama administration to undo damage caused by its announcement of a July 2011 date to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, officials and analysts say it has had a deleterious effect on Afghan morale.
“The deadline of July 2011 has done us enormous harm. It has led a great many Afghans and Pakistanis and others to believe we are [getting] out of there too quickly,” said Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration.
NATO leaders meeting in Lisbon on Saturday will discuss plans to draw out the withdrawal of coalition troops to the end of 2014.
The alliance’s leaders are also expected to agree on a timetable to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
Speaking in Lisbon on Friday, President Obama said coalition partners and the Afghan government would work to “align our approach on Afghanistan, particularly in two areas: our transition to full Afghan lead between 2011 and 2014, and the long-term partnership that we’re building in Afghanistan.”
But U.S. officials describe 2014 as only “an aspirational goal.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said this week that “although the goal is to have Afghan security forces in the lead over the preponderance of the country by then, it does not necessarily mean, A) that everywhere in the country they will necessarily be in the lead — although clearly that would be the goal, that would be the hope, that’s what we would shoot for … and B), that it does not mean that all U.S. or coalition forces would necessarily be gone by that date. There may very well be the need for forces to remain in-country, albeit, hopefully, at smaller numbers, to assist the Afghans as they assume lead responsibility for the security of their country.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the West must stay committed in Afghanistan for “as long as it takes.”
Gen. Keane said the coalition’s ability to successfully meet its 2014 target is threatened by the continuing support from the Pakistani government and army for militant safe havens along the border with Afghanistan.
“Those sanctuaries are aided and abetted by the government of Pakistan and by the military of Pakistan. If the Pakistanis do not pull the plug on those sanctuaries … it is hard to imagine us meeting the 2014 date,” Gen. Keane said.
Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan is linked to its desire to limit archrival India’s influence in the region.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said parts of the Pakistani establishment continue to view Afghanistan as a client state.
“A serious attempt is needed within Pakistan to rethink this view of Afghanistan,” Mr. Nawaz said.
Mr. Boot said terrorist safe havens, along with government corruption, were the two most problematic issues in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think you can get the Pakistanis to turn off support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network and others any time in the near future, but we can safeguard Afghanistan against foreign interference,” he said.
Describing government corruption as the best recruiting agent that the Taliban have, Mr. Boot said this is one area in which the U.S. can do more by regulating the flow of its contracting dollars.
Gen. Keane, who last visited Afghanistan in September, said the situation on the ground is changing for the better and if this momentum continues, by next spring “we will have definable progress that will be self-evident to anyone.”
He said the surge of U.S. troops was working and cited an “erosion of the will of the enemy” and a “breakdown of its morale” as key indicators of this progress.
Gen. Keane said every coalition commander he met while in Afghanistan had evidence of Taliban fighters reaching out to switch sides. “Sometimes it was just a handful and in others as much as 200… that is a very significant factor,” he said.
Mr. Neumann, meanwhile, said it was important to check a desire for instant results and cautioned against exaggerating progress.