Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Center of Gravity in Afghanistan

Official U.S. military strategy highlights the idea proposed by Clausewitz that a nation should focus its efforts against an enemy’s “center of gravity,” the Schwerpunkt. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, the focus has always been too narrowly drawn toward military matters when the real weakness was always the inept and corrupt Afghan government.

This explains why the U.S. has won every battle and still lost the war in that far away country.

Whenever the U.S. loses a guerrilla war – first Vietnam and then Iraq – there is an intellectual debate over the nature of “The American Way of War” and whether it is a model that leads to success in wars against popularly based armed forces. Critics like Antulio Echevarria II, a retired officer and Director of Research at the U.S. Army War College, say that there is an “American way of battle” – hit the enemy fiercely with overwhelming firepower – and not an American way of war because our military victories have not translated into strategic successes.

Dr. Echevarria says that “The new American way of war appears to have misidentified the center of gravity in each of these campaigns [Afghanistan and Iraq], placing more emphasis on destroying enemy forces than securing population centers and critical infrastructure and maintaining order.” Here we can return to Clausewitz and the marvelous trinity. For Clausewitz, war is a wrestling match – a dynamic contest that features multiple points of contact and develops over time. In this situation, the center of gravity “is created by the interaction between the wrestlers and changes as they alter their relationship.”

To be more concrete, in any guerrilla war, where the U.S. is intervening to defend a local government from a rival political organization, the center of gravity, the dynamic point of interaction between the U.S. and the guerrilla army, is the native government . In Afghanistan (and in Iraq and Vietnam) the U.S. military focused on killing members of the guerrilla army while the government it was protecting was alienating and exploiting the population – driving them into the arms of the rebellion.

There are no written accounts of the Afghan government under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai that do not include the words incompetent and corrupt. For example, in the fall of 2010 there was a run on the Kabul Bank when the bank’s chairman, Sherkhan Farnood acknowledged to NBC that the bank had invested $160 million of the bank’s $1.3 billion in assets into luxury villas and two residential towers in Dubai. The villas were located in Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island that juts out into the Persian Gulf in the shape of a giant palm tree – you must see it. During the interview Farnood confirmed that the homes were acquired in his name and were used by the bank’s major shareholders, included President Karzai’s brother and the brother of Vice President Muhammed Fahim. When he was asked why the homes were purchased in his name, Farnood replied… “it was easier” to do it that way.

Every other matter of governance in the country is done in the same spirit. With little popular support, Karzai has been dependent since the beginning on local warlords – who control key economic assets and heavily armed militias – in every part of the country. Unconcerned about local governance once the war was “over” and the Taliban was defeated; the Bush administration propped up our shaky ally, allowing the enemy to regroup and begin a classic guerrilla war. Obama’s surge in 2009 did nothing to change the Afghan government and his escalation of the war merely slowed the Taliban’s rising influence.

The First Mistake in Afghanistan

Clausewitz studied the guerrilla war waged in Spain against Napoleon and decided that resistance by an aroused population could prove decisive in war, even if the national army was defeated. The Bush Administration failed to prepare for a long war in Afghanistan because it did not understand how the native population would react to an American occupation.

Seeking an easy victory in Afghanistan, Bush and Cheney did not consider the consequences of fighting an enemy who possessed the will to fight a protracted war.

Humiliated by Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian army at Jena in 1806, Carl von Clausewitz watched with fascination as guerrilla soldiers in Spain harassed and frustrated thousands of French soldiers. His patriotic passions then boiled over in the spring of 1812, when Napoleon intimidated Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm into sending a corps of Prussian troops to participate in the Emperor’s invasion of Russia. Clausewitz resigned his commission in the Prussian army and became an officer in the Czar Alexander’s army.

Before leaving he wrote Bekenntnisdenkschrift, roughly meaning “statement of belief.” In it he declared that Napoleon meant to occupy the German nation and the King and his court were fools to cooperate with the country’s real enemy. He then laid out an alternative plan of resistance based on the Prussian army breaking up into small units combined with a general arming of the patriotic citizenry. Clausewitz and the State. In Russia, he had a front row view of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign. Russian generals avoided decisive battles, drew the Emperor deep into an armed, hostile countryside, and then successfully counter-attacked.

Later, Clausewitz wrote in his seminal work On War “As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack.” Clausewitz in the 21st Century. In the modern era, when whole nations are mobilized to go to war, no attacker can achieve a decisive victory with “a single, short blow…Even when great strength has been expended on the first decision and the balance has been badly upset, equilibrium can be restored… The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

The Bush Administration made the mistake of viewing the Taliban as merely a government and believed that the loss of formal ruling powers would lead to a break-up after their military defeat in late 2001. However, the Taliban is really a movement, the principal representative of the Pashtun people.

A quick look at a map shows that their tribal area includes about one-third of Afghanistan, the southeastern region, and a similar size area in Pakistan’s southwestern region. It is estimated that there are about 50 million Pashtuns in all. The Afghan Pashtuns are the most populous ethnic group in their country while Pakistani Pashtuns are a distinct minority in theirs. The tribe has lived in this region since around 1,000 BCE; that is, long before Rome was founded or the golden age in Greece. To act as if this organization would simply disappear after a military defeat was the height of folly.

Politics and Unintended Consequences

Who knew that the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with a brilliant theory about politics that explains why it is shot through with unintended consequences and unusual twists and turns.

His “fascinating Trinity” offers a unique way to think about political life.

One of my good friends is always cautioning me about my bold statements about politics and what will happen next.  He is a devotee of the notion that life is extremely complex and all actions lead to unintended consequences.  It turns out that Clausewitz, who fought in the Prussian and Russian armies against Napoleon, felt the same way.

After Waterloo, he became the Director of the Prussian equivalent of West Point and wrote On War, one of those complex 19th century books that everyone talks about and nobody reads.  However, he still generates plenty of controversy amongst military theorists – the internet is crowded with debates about his ideas.

Clausewitz describes war as a “fascinating Trinity.”  In all wars, he says, both full tilt combat between major powers and guerrilla wars, there are three dimensions. First is the realm of passion and emotion, anger, loyalty, and violence because war is like a heavyweight wrestling match – direct and brutal.  Another realm is the element of chance, intuition, military genius, willpower, and “friction,” his term which is the genesis of the idea we know as the fog of war.  Finally, there is the realm of rational planning, policy making, and strategic decision making.

The course of every war veers around in a non-linear, chaotic fashion between these three elements. Clausewitz says it is like a metal object hanging on a string that is being attracted simultaneously by three magnets set up in a triangle arrangement.  I saw a demonstration of this situation on a video.  What happens is the metal object careens around wildly, being pulled almost randomly this way and that way between the three magnets.  It is a fascinating multi-dimensional demonstration that smashes the cramped linearity of lines and arrows and circles on a piece of paper.

Thus, war is unpredictable and all planned activities generate unforeseen, unintended consequences. Once a war starts, no one can predict its course.  Therefore, a nation must plan carefully for a war, trying to examine a wide array of possible outcomes to events. It must then be flexible and ready to re-evaluate frequently as the war continues.  He also says that politics is like war, except that there is no (or at least little) violence in the passion-emotion element.  That is why he pens the famous statement: “war is an extension of politics by other means.”

I hope to use this multi-dimensional trinity imagery to think more deeply about politics in the future.  For now, I will use Mr. Clausewitz in some future posts about Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe he can help us understand the disasters that occurred in those countries.