Looking for more firepower in the tough fight against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, Marines are scheduled to receive 14 tanks next month, which would be the first time the U.S. military has used tanks in the nine-year war in Afghanistan.
The Marines operating in Helmand Province have seen heavy combat this year and Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the senior Marine commander in Afghanistan, a few weeks ago requested the firepower and protection that tanks can provide as they push into Taliban controlled areas.
So 14 M1 Abrams tanks and 115 Marines are expected to arrive in mid-December to be used in the fight against the Taliban in northern Helmand Province. Among the areas to where they will be sent is Sangin District, an area where Marines have suffered significant casualties in recent weeks, a Defense official said.
The Marines of the 3rd battalion, 5th Regiment, have experienced 15 deaths since taking over control of the district from the British in September. They are on pace to be the combat battalion with the most fatalities in the war in Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials note that the use of tanks is not new in Afghanistan, as Canadian and Danish forces have used them in their deployments. But it will be the first time that U.S. forces have used tanks in the war in Afghanistan.
Knowing that the Taliban will likely use the deployment for their propaganda purposes, Mills said in a statement, "Tanks are hardly a weapon of desperation, but simply another tool to wage counterinsurgency in an effective way that will save Afghan and Coalition lives."
Military officials are keenly aware of the negative perception many Afghans still have about the use of tanks after the Soviet occupation. So the Marines will strive to convey the message to people that the tanks will not be used against them.
During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, "tanks were used to oppress people; they were used in a much different fashion," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said.
"So part of the engagement will be to make sure the populace is aware of how the tanks are going to be used."
Pentagon officials have stressed that the use of tanks in a counterinsurgency fight is not a contradiction, noting that M1 tanks were used in Iraq, particularly by the Marines deployed in the restive Al Anbar Province.
Marine officials say the tanks' precise firepower will enable Marine forces to protect population centers and take the fight to the Taliban from afar. The focus will remain on protecting civilians, as Mills noted: "We take every precaution during firefights to protect the lives and property of the Afghan people.
"Tanks provide us with a deadly accurate weapon system that can be used very effectively against the enemy even as he tries to use the Afghan people as his shield."
Officials say that in addition to providing more precise firepower and protection, the optical equipment they carry aboard can be used at nighttime to detect insurgents placing the deadly roadside bombs that are causing so many casualties in the war in Afghanistan.
The tanks will prove useful in Helmand's diverse geography, which "ranges from dense vegetation along the rivers to expansive desert terrain to the south," Mills said.
"The mobility of the tanks gives us an ideal platform to interdict the insurgent's drugs as they flow south and his fighters, supplies and weapons as they go north" from Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen did not have to approve the request to deploy the tanks, but they were informed of the decision by the commanders in Afghanistan.