Clausewitz & Iraq: Three Views on Victory
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Our friend COL David Maxwell -- who, having commanded a successful COIN effort in the JSOTF-P, deserves to be on Petraeus' list of potential generals -- recently sent us a piece by James Pinkerton called "All he is saying is give war a chance, too." Pinkerton asserts, using the voice of von Clausewitz, that we aren't close to winning in Iraq; though we are in Sudan.
COL Maxwell believes, as I do, that while the answers to warfighting problems aren't contained in the classical works like On War or The Art of War, you can find the answers to current problems by learning the principles and then trying to see how they apply to current problems. The process of thinking it through, in the light of what the wise have written, will help you gain insights you might not come to on your own. The answers are in your own head, not the books; but the books offer tools that will be of great service.
That said, Pinkerton's view of what Clausewitz would say about Iraq is not mine. I wrote back with an analysis of how Clausewitz was properly applied to Iraq, which shows that we are in fact very close to the culminating point of victory. That argument is reproduced in the extended entry.
This morning, I see that retired Major General Robert Scales has a piece in the Wall Street Journal that uses the same "culminating point of victory" language that I used in my email to the Colonel. I met MG Scales while he was here, though we did not talk about the war; I used the brief moment of introduction to thank him for his long service and remarkable career. It is good to see, though, that he is also thinking about these problems -- and that his eyes see something similar to what I see myself.
In the extended entry, my own reading is reproduced. If you have not read much Clausewitz, you might find it helpful to read it before the Scales piece, as it explains the concept of "culminating point of victory."
First, an explanation of terms.
However strongly an offensive may start out, it inevitably weakens as it advances from its original base. The need to provide garrisons, to maintain the lines of supply and communications, the greater physical strain on troops in the attack, all degrade the aggressor's force. Meanwhile, the defender falls back upon the sources of his strength. Every offensive, however victorious, has a "culminating point." If the defender has enough time and space in which to recover (and Russia offered an excellent example, which Clausewitz noted long before Napoleon's disaster there in 1812-13), the aggressor inevitably reaches a point at which he must himself take up the defense. If he pushes too far, the equilibrium will shift against him. The aggressor, in his own retreat (often through devastated territory), cannot draw on the defender's usual sources of strength -- physical or psychological. Moreover, public opinion is more likely to favor the strategic defender, since significant conquests by one contender will threaten the rest. Eventually, the conqueror will reach a "culminating point of victory" at which his successes provoke sufficient counteraction to defeat him."
The strategic defenders in Iraq were the Baathists, and the Shi'ite militias (themselves divided against one another, roughly into the Badr and Sadr factions). The Baathists attempted to defeat us with a precisely Clausewitzian model: by withdrawing into Sunni tribal regions, defending in depth with guerrilla fighting and pre-planned caches ringing Baghdad, and trying to win enough victories to unite the tribes behind Saddam.
This failed. The tribes were increasingly united against the Coalition, but we were very effective at leveraging databases and intelligence to build a map of Saddam's network, and attack it. That's how we tracked him down.
AQI stepped up at about this time, attempting to assert the leadership of the Sunni insurgency. They have, now, failed disasterously in that regard. Their affronts to Iraqi tribal culture were so harsh that they actually managed to convince the Sunnis that we were their defenders. This is true increasingly throughout the Sunni regions. American forces are received as genuine allies -- against the Shi'ites, as well as against AQI itself.
Within the Shi'ite community, there was a similar attempt to unite the populace under a 'strategic defender,' in 2004 when al Sadr led an uprising. It was defeated in some pretty stiff fighting in a number of cities, but most critically in the fighting near Najaf. The critical point here was that the US Army managed to fight a religiously symbolic foe, entrenched in religiously symbolic buildings, with enough cultural sensitivity to avoid provoking the general uprising that would have marked the 'culminating point of victory' for Sadr.
Najaf today is independent, increasingly wealthy with tourist money (to the shrines), and beginning to see real improvement.
So, in terms of moving on the continuum from war to politics, where are we? On the Sunni side, you have an increasingly strong movement to view the Coalition as guarantors of survival. Although the alliance is young and still needs a lot of management, and is further complicated by the multitude of tribes, their understanding of their interests is clear. We've reached the culminating point of victory there: they're ready to consider us the army of victory, and follow to a settlement. In addition, we've got a well-established alliance with the Kurds in the north.
The Shi'ites are the main problem remaining. But this really is a political problem: we're balancing competing factions who each want to view themselves as natural leaders of Iraq. We have partners in the Kurds, and partners in the Sunnis. We have to play the Shi'ite factions off each other, applying the weight of our Sunni and Kurdish allies, in order to push back on now one Shi'ite faction and now another a little bit at a time. The fighting that remains just shows that we're near the midpoint of the war-politics continuum. We've not crossed it yet -- but we're close.