WASHINGTON (AP) — Ratcheting up U.S. combat power in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is sending Abrams tanks into the battle against insurgents at a time when the U.S. and European publics are anxious to see progress in the 9-year-old war.
The move also follows a public dispute with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who wants international coalition forces to take a lower profile.
A company of 14 M1A1 Abrams tanks along with 115 Marines to crew them will be deployed to southwest Afghanistan next month, 1st Lt. Josh Diddams, a Marine Corps spokesman, said Friday.
Though the deployment is a first for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Canadian and Danish troops have already used the huge, heavily armored combat vehicles in the battle against militants.
Diddams said the heavy tanks will help Marines mount precise assaults on insurgents hiding in dug-in positions or within compounds, reducing the risk of collateral damage.
Because they are tracked vehicles, he said, they can also be used to intercept insurgents moving shipments of weapons, money and drugs across rugged desert supply lines that stretch to the Pakistani border.
News of the Marine Corps' deployment of the Abrams tanks comes shortly after Karzai stunned U.S. officials when he told The Washington Post that the U.S.-led NATO forces should reduce the visibility and intensity of their military operations.
"The time has come to reduce military operations," Karzai said. "The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."
A senior NATO official said Wednesday that Karzai had reversed himself and expressed support for international military operations in a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Military officials said the U.S. use of the tanks will not increase the risk of civilian casualties.
"We take every precaution during fire fights to protect the lives and property of the Afghan people," Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander in the southwest region said. "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."
David Johnson, an analyst with RAND Corporation, agreed. "Quite simply, heavy forces reduce operational risks and minimize friendly casualties," Johnson said.
The Washington Post, which first reported the plan to deploy tanks in Friday editions, quoted an unidentified official as acknowledging the move could be seen as a sign of desperation by some Afghans and Americans so many years into the war.
Mills challenged that, saying: "Tanks are hardly a weapon of desperation but simply another tool" to wage the counterinsurgency campaign and save Afghan and coalition lives.