Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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.

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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.

Reversal of Fortune

The last post on this blog was in November of 2008.  In it, I compared Obama to Quinn the Eskimo in the famous Bob Dylan song.  At that time a giddy euphoria swept much of the country and there were pundits calling for President Bush to resign so that Obama could take office immediately.

At the time, I felt there was no longer a pressing need for a blog about the American empire; a systematic, historically-based criticism of the wars and hardships that accompany the country’s restless urge to control the earth’s resources and destiny.  Deep down, I had been rooting hard for Obama and, like many others, projected my hopes and dreams of reform onto his candidacy.  I also thought that he understood the urgent need for change and would be eager to seize the moment.

Most ironically, about the time of my last post it was becoming clear that Al Franken was going to eventually win the Senate seat in Minnesota, giving the Democrats 57 seats along with two Independents – even if one of them was that miserable tool Joe Lieberman.  With the help of the remaining moderate Republicans like Snow and Collins from Maine and the political weathervan Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, a series of reforms would wash away eight years of awful rule by Dick Cheney and his amiable sidekick.

How misguided that whole mood seems today!  The 60-40 split in the Senate morphed with President Obama’s odd desire for bi-partisan legislation, giving enormous power to the most conservative Democrats in the Senate.  Combined with the “filibuster everything” strategy followed by all of the Republicans, the Senate has become a bastion of reaction.  Just as Cato and his faction in the Senate of the Roman Republic were willing to risk civil war in order to crush reform politicians, the hard-line conservatives who control the Republican Party and much of the media are will to bring Obama’s government to a halt.

Disheartening as these events were, the real shock was President Obama’s willingness to pump up the defense budget and expand the war in Afghanistan.  These actions confirm the thesis presented in my book – that the American empire is a deeply bi-partisan effort to dominate political and economic affairs in every part of the globe.  Thus, the blog is back and I hope that people of good-will all over the U.S. turn their efforts toward restoring the vitality of the American Republic before it is too late.

Obama’s Afghan Promise

While we often complain about candidates not keeping their campaign promises, when it comes to difficult, complex issues, a campaign promise can become a ball and chain around a new President’s neck.  This happened to Bill Clinton when he promised to immediately ban persecution of gays in the military during his 1992 campaign.  Instead of working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to introduce a suitable shift in military policy, Clinton issued an Executive Order on his first day in office, abolishing rules against gays serving in the military.  This placed him in a high-profile conflict with war hero and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.  Clinton took an enormous amount of flack from right-wing and Congressional critics, Powell refused to buckle under Presidential pressure, and the public perceived Clinton as imposing an extreme “liberal” position on the highly praised military that had just won Gulf War I.  The new President was forced to accept a humiliating defeat, agreeing to the ridiculous “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that actually made things worse for gay individuals in the service.

I bring up this sorry episode as a warning when we consider Obama’s repeated promises during the fall debates to hunt down Osama bin Ladin and kill him, with or without the help of the Pakistani government.  It is unclear to me how he can carry out this promise without continuing the new American policy of unannounced cruise missle strikes in the mountainous areas of western Pakistan, a policy cooked up by the Bush administration this summer.  Not surprisingly, these attacks on a sovereign country are destabilizing our relationship with the new Pakistani President and the country’s largest political party.  To frost the cake, Obama also explicitly and repeatedly said he would send more U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan in order to defeat the Taliban.  He has created very high expectations and will have a difficult time backing out of these commitments – commitments that could lead to the collapse of civilian rule in Pakistan and the creation of a new quagmire in the remote hills of Afghanistan.

Leaving aside the folly of adopting any policy created by the Bush Administration, I believe these Osama-Afghanistan promises are a classic example of how the Democrats have historically been drawn into defending the American empire.  In the heat of an election campaign, Obama felt he had to show how tough he is, how he would be a vigorous Commander-in-Chief.  Just like Kennedy and Johnson had to show how tough they were by keeping the commies out of Vietnam.  These military promises are powerful because they fit right into the imperial job description that so many military, journalistic, academic, and political leaders attach to the Presidency.  It is a job description that many Democratic and Republican voters believe in as well.  As such, they are the policy equivalent of painting yourself into a corner and then claiming you are free to go anywhere you want.  The appropriate response is – Yes, within your little box.

Of course, Obama is not as trigger-happy as McCain, but the criticism from Hillary Clinton this spring and then McCain and the media about his “credentials” to be Commander-in-Chief (see my posting in September) have forced him to become much more militaristic than he was when he started the campaign.  We are actually watching, in real time, how the dynamics and pressures of empire shape individuals who become leaders.  No matter what their pre-presidential ideas about foreign policy, the pressures of the political system puts them in a position where, in order to advance to the presidency, they must commit to defending the empire.  In Perils of Empire, I explain in detail how the dynamics of the Roman political system consistently generated leaders who sought war and expansion of territory – and the American political system has been doing a similar thing since at least the end of WWII.  Without a powerful peace movement that opposes wars and treaties the promote the empire, Democrats get pushed into the imperial system, even those who begin with good intentions.

McCain and Pre-Emptive War

     On Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 John McCain told an audience that he wouldn’t rule out attacking another country even if it had not first attacked the United States.  He was responding to a question referring to President Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq.  McCain said “I don’t think you could make a blanket statement about pre-emptive war, because obviously, it depends on the threat that the Untied States of America faces.”

     Pre-emptive war became an American policy when leaders of the Bush administration told the nation and the world that there was an “imminent” threat to the U.S. from Saddam Hussein.  They insisted (falsely) that he had nuclear weapons and claimed he worked closely with al Qaeda (another lie) and was going to give the feared terrorist organization weapons of mass destruction.  This supposed alliance of a nuclear regime with a terrorist group posed an imminent threat of attack–giving the U.S. the right to launch a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. 

     Why would John McCain be willing to consider launching another pre-emptive war, especially when this one turned out so well?  The connection between Bush’s aggression and McCain’s beligerance is a small group of policy intellectuals known as neo-conservatives.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the United States occupying the role of sole world superpower, the neo-conservatives came together to support two big ideas. First, increasing military spending so the United States would be unchallenged as the world’s military superpower for many decades.  Second, using U.S. military power to invade and re-organize any countries unwilling to throw themselves open to the global marketplace dominated by U.S. corporations and banks.  They were especially concerned about unfriendly governments that controlled vital natural resources.

     The neo-conservatives invented the term “regime change” to encompass the idea that the U.S. should take out governments hostile to American corporations.  Regime change meant not worrying about getting permission from the United Nations or rallying our European allies to support the effort.  By the late 1990s, they focused on Sadam Hussein’s brutal government in Iraq, which just happened to sit on vast reserves of oil, as the first regime to change when the opportunity arose.

     Frustrated with the Clinton administration’s reluctance to act alone, the neo-conservatives supported John McCain when he ran for president. Then, when foreign affairs neophyte George Bush picked Dick Cheney was to be vice president, they moved into positions of prominence in the Bush regime.  For example, neo-conservative sympathizer Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense, neo-conservative author Paul Wolfowitz became deputy secretary of defense, and neo-conservative writer Douglas Feith became undersecretary of defense for policy.

     In response to the horrific attack of 9/11, these men came up with what was known as the Bush Doctrine (what, you thought George Bush wrote the Bush Doctrine while sitting at the Lincoln desk in the White House?)  The Bush Doctrine was an elaborate defense of pre-emptive war against rogue states that might develop weapons of mass destruction.

     While you might think that the neo-conservatives would be a bit bashful about offering up any new foreign policy advice – you are wrong.  They are as loud and persistent as ever, and they have found a presidential candidate who stands right with them in their crusade to crush Islamo-Fascism with American military power everywhere and anywhere.  Yes, their old favorite,  John McCain.

     The New York Times reported on April 10, 2008 that there is now a spirited competition between foreign policy pragmatists like Lawrence Eagleburger, formerly secretary of state under George Bush the first, and the neo-conservatives.  The McCain campaign’s head of foreign policy positions is Randy Scheunemann, who is on the board of the leading neo-conservative organization, the Project for the New American Century, and is president of the PNAC affiliate Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.  Mr. Scheunemann was an enthusiastic supporter of Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, at least until it was discovered that Mr. Chalabi’s political party had no support in Iraq and that he was passing American secrets on to his friends in Iran.

     Mr. Scheunemann has brought a number of neo-conservative leaders into the McCain campaign.  For example, Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, helped McCain write the major foreign policy speech he gave in Los Angeles on March 26.  Another neo-conservative advisor is Max Boot, who wrote in 2001, “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

     The Times reassures us that Mr. McCain also gets pragmatic foreign policy advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  Mr. Kissinger told the Times that “When we meet for lunch or inner, or on the one or two occasions he has come to my home, we have had philosophical discussions.” While doing the research for this blog entry, I’ve developed a very queasy feeling about a potential John McCain administration.