Service members in Afghanistan’s Regional Command–Southwest will receive 14 M1A1 Abrams tanks to aid in the fight against the Taliban.
The Marine Corps tanks, which pack a super-accurate 120 mm main gun, will begin to arrive in January. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are aware that the tanks are being deployed, though the transfer did not require their approval.
“This is a capability the Marine force on the ground has in their inventory so they are swapping capabilities,” Pentagon spokesman Marine Col. Dave Lapan said. “This isn’t additive to what they have.”
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, commander of Regional Command-Southwest which is responsible for security operations in Helmand and Nimroz provinces, requested the tanks. Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, and Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, approved the request.
“All commanders evaluate their situations and their operations,” Lapan said. “The commander in RC-Southwest determined that tanks would be useful in the fight he has because of the increased mobility, the increased firepower, because of the optics the tanks have.”
Tanks are more accurate than artillery, mortars or aerial bombardment, Lapan said. Coalition allies have had main battle tanks in Afghanistan in the past.
The RC—Southwest region lends itself to armored operations. The area is wide open and has none of the mountainous terrain that characterizes Regional Command–East and the northern portions of Regional Command–South. Commanders in those areas are not requesting tanks, Lapan said.
The Afghan people have bad memories of tanks in action. The Soviet Union deployed thousands of T-55, T-62 and T-72 main battle tanks into Afghanistan when it invaded the country in 1979. Soviet crews used the tanks to mow down civilians and destroy whole villages. Tanks became a hated object of oppression, and to this day, people can still see burnt out hulks of old Soviet tanks rusting in various parts of Afghanistan.
“Soviet tanks were something the populace will obviously remember,” Lapan said. The local command will work with local leaders to explain to the public what’s happening, and how the tanks will be used.
Lapan emphasized that the movement of the M1A1s to Afghanistan does not represent an escalation of the conflict there.
“These things happen all the time,” he said. “We’re conducting full-spectrum combat operations today, we’ll be doing it tomorrow, we’ll be doing it next month. Until the Afghan security forces are ready to take over lead for security ... we will continue to do combat operations to defeat the enemy.
“Whether we use tanks, or infantry on the ground,” Lapan continued, “these are all tactics we use to defeat the enemy.”