Tag Archives: empire

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.

Drone Wars U.S.A.

We know a lot more about the Obama drone warfare program after a month of revelations and the whole discussion is making me a little nervous.

Unbelievably, the drone wars are coming home.

My uneasy month began in early February, when the Department of Justice released a white paper that provides the legal rationale for using drones to kill U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of aiding terrorists. Contrary to the general impression that President Obama reviews important targets for drone strikes, the white paper says that an “informed, high level official” of the U.S. government can determine if an individual may, at some time in the future, plan and/or carry out a terrorist attack. That official can, acting alone, authorize a drone strike on that individual. The white paper claims this power does not violate the Fifth Amendment, which says U.S. citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This is yet another step in the growing threat to our civil liberties.

Then, in response to a question by Republican Senator Ted Cruz at a March 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. tried to avoid saying whether he thought it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. military to use a drone to kill an American citizen “sitting in a café” in the United States. When Holder finally stopped talking in circles and admitted it would not be constitutional, Cruz said he was glad to finally get a clear answer and added that he would introduce a bill barring the use of drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. Holder responded that the bill might be an unconstitutional intrusion on presidential power.

How has it come to pass that Senators and the Attorney General are publically debating the constitutionality of using drone strikes against Americans who have offended the government?

Once again, wars of empire in far-off lands are generating dangerous consequences back home. It is a theme repeated throughout history. In my book, I show how, when the Roman Republic conquered other nations, the strains of governing hostile peoples and the unintended consequences of ill-gotten new wealth eventually created turmoil and then civil war.

Now, as if following the lead of the federal government, local and state police departments are starting to use drones to keep an eye out for crime and other subversive activities.

At the core of this threat is our lazy willingness to let the U.S. government become more and more dependent on drone strikes as its primary foreign policy tool. We pretend to believe that these strikes are precise attacks on dangerous terrorists and ignore mounting evidence that large numbers of innocent civilians are being randomly killed by these not so surgical explosions. We turn our back on questions about justice and war and suddenly the debate is over whether to shoot at us.

The question of who is the enemy is a slippery slope when you are stuck in a never-ending war against “enemies of the state.” Once you begin the slide, you never know where you might end up.

Hugo Chavez’s Death is an Historic Opportunity

Hugo Chavez’s legacy is still unwritten.  History shows that reformers have long lasting impact when they leave behind successors who can protect and build on the changes they sponsored.

President Chavez was not perfect.

His fourteen years of rule were marked by administrative confusion, wasteful spending, and an erratic personal style.  However, all of these failings were overshadowed by his consistent attempts to make life better for the average person and to shift power away from a parasitic aristocracy and give it to the vast majority of Venezuelans.

Since Chavez became president in 1999, the percentage of people living in poverty in Venezuela has fallen from 50% to 27% and the CIA World Factbook admits that “social investment has led to better living standards, including increased school enrollment, a substantial reduction in infant and child mortality, and greater access to potable water and sanitation.”

With his death comes an opportunity for new people with new talents and ideas to solidify these gains, continue to build popular participation in government, and improve any reform programs that are poorly managed.  The opposition party, Table of Democratic Unity, representing the social and economic elites who used to run Venezuela for themselves, is a distinct minority party now.  Its presidential candidate lost to Chavez by a wide margin in last fall’s elections, while Chavez-endorsed candidates were elected governors in 20 of the country’s 23 states.

Julius Caesar squandered his legacy as a leader of the reforming populares group by choosing as his lieutenant and successor the brutal thug Marc Anthony – a man incapable of rallying the common people (in spite of what Shakespeare wrote) or of peacefully participating in the Roman Republic’s electoral system.  Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was enhanced when Harry Truman’s victory in 1948 solidified the New Deal Coalition.

Now, Hugo Chavez’s successors in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, a coalition of populist groups he brought together in 2007, must choose between working together to continue the reform movement or splitting apart to follow their own small ambitions.  President Chavez’s legacy hangs in the balance.

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 the Eskimo

We are experiencing an extraordinary collective moment in American history.  The Bush economy is driving many people to despair and the stock market is matching that by exhibiting all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown.  After watching President Bush’s empty performance at the world economic summit last weekend, the market has plunged all week.  However, it turns out that hedge fund managers and IRA-owners alike are waiting to be saved by one man: President-elect Barack Obama.  Perhaps we should set it to music:

Everybody’s building the big ships and the boats — Some are building monuments –Others, jotting down notes — Everybody’s in despair — Every girl and boy — But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here — Everybody’s gonna jump for joy — Come all without, come all within — You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn!  (Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes)

How is it that a dangerous socialist radical, a scary multi-racial man, an elite lawyer from Harvard, a first-term Senator, has suddenly become The Answer?  Who knows, but when word leaked that Obama was choosing Tim Geithner, currently head of the NY Federal Reserve, to be Secretary of the Treasury (not a very surprising choice) the stock market rose 500 points IN ONE HOUR.  Rarely has a new president been so eagerly awaited, never before have people wailed and moaned about the terribly long time between election day in November and inauguration day in January.  It seems to me that he is being given an extraordinary opportunity to propose bold new steps in both domestic and foreign policy – let’s hope he seizes this historic moment.

But when Obama the President gets here — Everybody’s gonna run to him — Come all without, come all within — You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Obama!

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.