More on Clausewitz

Patrick Porter takes on Admiral Mullen’s classification of Kandahar as the enemy “center of gravity” in anticipation of the upcoming offensive there:

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

This isn’t the first time a major operation has been launched to strike at an enemy “center of gravity.” In fact, it happened fairly recently, and as I then pointed out, the military’s insistence on a) clinging to the term and b) if applicable, attacking that center of gravity is just irresponsible.

But more generally, this seems to be a movement lacking any important centers of gravity. That’s the whole problem with counterinsurgency; there’s no decisive point at which to apply pressure. It’s trying to tighten your grip on a handful of sand. Obviously I’m not saying give up the ghost, but I am suggesting that perhaps the whole concept of a large offensive whilst fighting an insurgency is an anachronism.

Kandahar probably is where we need to be, but if we’re doing so for these Clausewitzian theories… then we’re just missing the point.


Lance Cpls. Keith B. Lawson and Spence G. Press, scout snipers attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, work together to identify targets as Taliban fighters approached from Marjeh toward their position at the “Five Points” intersection Feb. 9, 2010.

Last night, the American, British, and Afghan assault on Marjah began. 6,000 soldiers were in the initial wave, and another 15,000 have been committed to rooting out Taliban-aligned elements operating in the area. Early reports have five Taliban fighters and one British soldier killed.

Resistance has been “light.”

In the run-up to the attack, there was no shortage of criticism over the advance warning given, the stated objectives, and even the target of Marjah itself. It was certainly well-founded. Registan argued that the strategic value of Marjah was limited at best and that the amount of opium production in the area was overstated, while Wired characterized the Coalition heads-up as asking residents to “please, please, pretty please don’t leave the warzone.” But everyone may be wrong about the purpose (or at least the timescale) of fighting in Marjah altogether. From Free Range International:

When the Marines crossed the line of departure today, the battle for Marjah had already been won.

Like a master magician General Nicholson mesmerized the press with flashy hand movements to draw attention away from what was important.  The press then focused on the less important aspects of the coming fight.  Just like a magic show the action occurred right in front of the press in plain view yet remained out of sight.

In an unparalleled combination of regular and special forces units, the real conflict over Marjah was conducted mostly behind the scenes. It’s too early to say for sure, but the FRI analysis sure does raise some interesting points. If the goal was to convince the Taliban (and not the civilian inhabitants of Marjah) to leave, doesn’t that just allow them to escape and regroup? (i.e., what’s the point?) Obviously avoiding civilian casualties is of huge concern, but there still seems to be a disconnect over goals and methods.

Conversely, even if everything is going as planned and the Taliban bugs out, “somebody has to do the hold and build – it is not fair or smart to put that burden on the 2nd MEB.” Absolutely. I can’t help but wonder how thoroughly the post-battle plan was thought out.

Either way, at this point nothing to do but play the waiting game. Now let’s see how this plays out.

Clausewitz Lives?

For all the debate surrounding the applicability of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to modern war, it’s fairly well-established that much of Clausewitz’s On War is the product of his age. Sun Tzu is perhaps better read, even by Western armies, if not for the sole purpose that it often serves as the guide for their enemies (not to oversimplify or state a categorical, but this is at least the assumption). At a strategic level, there is certainly some utility to be found, but the image one gets of Clausewitz’s writing is that of a relentless forward-only-advancing army, with no guile or subtlety to deploy.

It was for all these reasons that I was dismayed to hear Brigadier General Larry Nicholson of the 2nd MEB refer to Marjah, Afghanistan as the “enemy center of gravity” (about 1:20 in the clip). Marja is a “stronghold” of sorts, where insurgents stockpile weapons and have built defenses. Granted, General Nicholson was paraphrasing Afghans (whose most frequent asked question is, “when are the Marines leaving?”), but the fact remains that he’s employing Clausewitzian terminology to describe a decidedly un-Clausewitzian conflict.

You don’t hit the enemy where’s he strongest; nor do you hit him where he’s weakest. You attack where the enemy does not defend; you defend where the enemy does not attack. You avoid cities at all cost (this is not entirely applicable to Afghanistan, but it’s a strong general principle). If the Imperial German Army was wise enough to bypass Liège and Namur, you’d think the 2nd MEB could do the same. Obviously the parallels aren’t exact, but they’re there. If Marjah is what they’re defending, Marjah is what we don’t attack.