Friday, November 25, 2005

Our Center of Gravity and Victory in Iraq

In his seminal work on warfare, Clausewitz identified the theory of “center of gravity”. The center of gravity is the point of greatest importance, interest, or activity; if you destroy this center, you destroy the enemy’s will to fight and he will rapidly lose cohesion and capitulate. The center of gravity varies from enemy to enemy and from conflict to conflict.

In the first Gulf War, America and its allies found the Iraqi center of gravity in the Republican Guard. When we destroyed the effectiveness of the most elite units of Saddam’s army, the ordinary conscripts—already shell-shocked from round the clock aerial bombardment—lost the will to fight and surrendered en mass. With his most elite units taking such a blow, Saddam had no choice but to accept that the war was a lost cause.

In Vietnam, General Giap found our center of gravity—not so much in the will of the soldiers, but in the will of the American electorate. He realized he didn’t need to win the battles–as long as he killed as many American soldiers as possible, as often as possible, the will of the electorate would eventually crumble. All it required was a good understanding of war fighting doctrine and a ruthless disregard for his soldier’s welfare. Some would say that the notion that a peace movement could have handed us a defeat despite battlefield success is only strange if you reject the notion that in a representative democracy a mass movement of people can affect public policy.

Now Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents are hoping that the same strategy of striking at democracy’s center of gravity will pay similar dividends in Iraq. When calls go out to bring our troops home short of our stated objective—a stable democratic state that can defend itself against both foreign and domestic enemies—it is the understanding of this strategy that incenses those who truly want America to succeed. So while this war will be fought on the battlefield of Iraq, it will be won or lost on the American home front.

This strategy has been paying some dividends to America’s enemies, as seen in the opportunistic stances of some finger in the wind politicians calling for troop withdrawals on an artificial timetable, before we have adequately trained the Iraqi army. However, before one comes to a snap judgment as to the wisdom of an immediate troop withdrawal, it’s useful to project the possible outcomes. What follows is a possible scenario in the face of such a move.

Far from bringing more stability, an American withdrawal before the Iraqi government is able to adequately defend itself is likely to result in the break up of Iraq, a redrawing of the map of the Middle East, and spread instability beyond the borders of Iraq.

Iraq’s break up would most likely start with Syria trying to lay claim to the Sunni Arab provinces in the west on the pretences of border security and bringing peace and stability to a neighbor, much as they did in Lebanon through the 70s—a de facto annexation only just recently ended. It’s equally likely there would be a series of destabilizing incidents in Lebanon, carried out by Syrian intelligence agents, precipitating a new Syrian intervention. Make no mistake—these moves would be nothing more than blatant annexations in all but name.

On the heels of such a move by Syria, it is probable that Iran would likewise attempt to swallow up the Shiite areas in the east, and on much the same pretexts of border security and regional stability. This would put Iran in possession of vast amounts of oil reserves and give them the ability to threaten the economic stability of the entire world.

The desert bordering Saudi Arabia, which was claimed by the Saudis before the first Gulf war, may well be swallowed up in a revival of those claims. This may well trigger a savage and bloody war between the Sunni fundamentalist Saudis and the Shiite fundamentalist Iranians over theology and oil.

These moves would leave the Kurds alone in the mountains, a situation which would make Turkey feel compelled to annex the Kurdish areas of Iraq, fearing that an independent Kurdish state would cause their own Kurdish minority to break away.

All this would happen in the name of border security and regional stability–and you could kiss Middle East stability, an independent and multicultural Iraq, and the first true Arab democracy goodbye.

The best hope to head off this nightmare scenario, or any of the other myriad possible—and equally bad—scenarios, is for there to be a stable Iraqi government and a strong Iraqi army. We have been helping to build that government with great successes, as we have been helping to build the Iraqi Army with less obvious, but no less real, success. The successes on the battlefield will always be incremental and less tangible in the short run.

Al Qaeda’s center of gravity may be the repressive regimes that offer no economic opportunity and offer no outlets for frustration outside of fundamentalism. If we end these regimes and offer the Islamic world economic and social freedom, Al Qaeda might well have trouble finding recruits. Our victory in Iraq will be the successful birthing of the first true and lasting Arab democracy offering a vision to compete with the regimes that help to breed terrorism.

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