On War # 281: A Useful Culminating Point?

William S. Lind
November 3, 2008

In standard military theory, a culminating point is where an offensive runs out of gas. The troops are exhausted; vehicles urgently require maintenance; fuel, ammo and rations are all short. No matter how alluring the potential results of continuing the offensive, the attacker has to take a break. Often, a culminating point will mark the high water line of an attack. Afterwards, the initiative shifts to the defender.

Not surprisingly, culminating points are seen as something to be avoided. But a report in NightWatch for October 29 suggests that 4GW may offer a new variety of culminating point, one that is useful to an invader more than it is harmful. According to NightWatch:

The Pakistani daily The News reported today that a new “anti-coalition force” party has been formed in Afghanistan which would resist the activities of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. This new party is composed of those who detest the Taliban and Mullah Omar and who also are unhappy about the presence of Coalition forces in Afghanistan and considered them a compromise of Afghan sovereignty.

How large and how effective this new anti-coalition, anti-Taliban faction might become is impossible to say. Should it become a significant player, it would represent a new type of culminating point. It would represent the point at which an invader’s presence pushes the vital “middle” in an occupied country into resistance, without simultaneously pushing it into an alliance with the invader’s sworn enemies.

Why is this a culminating point in 4GW? Because it represents both the point at which the invader is doing himself more harm than good by staying and the point beyond which he does not need to stay. If the political middle can fight the invader and more extreme 4GW elements at the same time, it is probably strong enough to defeat the latter. We have seen this happen in Sunni-controlled regions in Iraq. Once American forces stopped fighting the nationalist Sunni resistance, those Sunni fighters wiped out al Qaeda.

At the same time, it is almost inevitable that the presence of occupying foreign troops will eventually alienate most of the population. When the alienation reaches a degree where it leads the political center to start fighting the occupier, the latter has reached a strategic culminating point (defined in time rather than in space). The longer he remains in country after reaching that point, the weaker his position will become.

If we put these two aspects of our new 4GW culminating point together, we see it marks the moment in time when an occupier both can leave and should leave. Unlike traditional culminating points, this new variety is useful rather than harmful. It helps an invader answer one of the most difficult questions in 4GW, when to leave. Timing a strategic withdrawal is always challenging, but in 4GW it is critical to winning the war. If timed too early, the occupier may open the door to victory by inherently hostile 4GW elements. If timed too late, he risks uniting most of the people against him, which can cost him an army as well as a hostile post-war relationship with the country he invaded. A culminating point that tells him the best moment to withdraw is something a wise occupier will welcome rather than seek to avoid.

What might our new, useful culminating point tell us about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? If the new anti-coalition, anti-Taliban grouping in Afghanistan proves real and gains significant strength, it tells the U.S. and NATO it’s time to go. The new centrist grouping would have legitimacy, unlike the Karzai puppet regime; if it can fight the Taliban effectively, it would probably represent the best chance of re-creating an Afghan state.

We may be on the cusp of a similar development in Iraq. The former Sunni insurgents now allied with U.S. forces as “the Awakening” have been rejected by the Shiite al-Maliki government, and at some point they will start fighting that government. If Washington reacts stupidly (as it usually does) and orders the U.S. military to fight the Sunnis, the latter will be fighting us and al Qaeda at the same time. Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia is preparing for another round with the Americans, this time on the Hezbollah model which relies on small, well-trained units instead of armed mobs. As Shiites, they will be equally hostile to us and to al Qaeda. Once we find ourselves fighting Sunnis and Shiites simultaneously we will have hit the 4GW culminating point.

If the U.S. government and the American armed forces understand the new culminating point, which is doubtful, they will withdraw from Iraq when they see it coming but before they actually hit it. They would thereby avoid a new round of fighting, which they would lose, and avoid a fighting withdrawal, which is always perilous. In other words, the time to get out of Iraq is now, while the going is good.

The American military will probably ignore all this, as it ignores military theory generally. But the Europeans may pay some attention. European militaries do pay attention to military theory, in part because they know they cannot solve problems by throwing money at them and in part because the 20th Century taught them the perils of Great Power hubris. Europe can do little to affect the war in Iraq, but if the Europeans were to decide that the moment to leave Afghanistan had arrived, the U.S. government would have to listen.

So here’s to the new Afghan centrists: may they prove strong enough to defeat the Taliban and save the U.S. and NATO from themselves.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Direct line: 703 837-0483

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7 Responses to “On War # 281: A Useful Culminating Point?”

  1. jaylemeuxon 05 Nov 2008 at 2:01 am 1

    This is a really good Lind article. Maybe one of the most illuminating I’ve read. It really shows how to think strategically.

  2. Duncan C Kinderon 05 Nov 2008 at 10:42 am 2

    “This new party is composed of those who detest the Taliban and Mullah Omar and who also are unhappy about the presence of Coalition forces in Afghanistan and considered them a compromise of Afghan sovereignty.”

    Some time ago, I advocated that, within the Islamic world, that we reach an alliance / understanding with the Sufis. This was back in the time when the neocons were trying to “democratize” the MidEast while the MSM was celebrating “moderate” Muslims, who really did like to drink bourbon and whose women longed to be soccer moms.

    Sufis are Muslims who don’t like Al Qaeda for almost precisely the same reasons that 17th century Jesuits didn’t like the Puritans. Yet they are no more in sync with our bourbon sipping soccer moms than the 17th century Jesuits would have been. Among other things, sufis were precisely and literally the guys who were “at the gates of Vienna,” don’t like Israel, and in their hearts probably think the Ottoman Empire was a very good idea.

    Yet they do represent a great and ancient civilization – one which has challenged us in the past and yet one with which we have been able to live with and to do business with. So there is reason that we could, once again, form some sort of accord. Make no mistake, they would be a problem – yet one which we could live with.

    And given the way the Bush administration has handled the “War on Terror,” reducing it to a problem we can live with would be a success.

  3. Newjarheaddeanon 05 Nov 2008 at 2:13 pm 3

    Reading Mr. Lind’s article I had the same thought I had while reading my maiden article on DNI. That being (what intelligence we have here, and IMO in the US gov as a whole). I personally have two pages of notes on the subject of anti and pro guerrilla and or insurgency warfare that lays out a wealth of facts in a just the facts ma’am manor. Anyways! My question?

    How can we reconcile this intelligence with the equally true statements of Mr. Lind (I’m paraphrasing) “If US reacts stupidly (as it usually does)” and “America will probably ignore all this, as it ignores military theory generally”.

    And I find the fallowing most curious, “Europe can do little to affect the war in Iraq, but if the Europeans were to decide to leave Afg. the U.S. gov would have to listen”. Here I’m amazed at how governments are looked upon as so limited and yet the prime foe (in GWOT) is nothing but small organizations. This suggests that Exxon/Mobil could defeat US with an insurgency. Or maybe they already have with lobbyist and thus the odd strategies and tactics. Or maybe US is “playing war” for the MIC. IMO one thing is for sure US tax payers are getting ripped off. G-day!

  4. gpanfileon 05 Nov 2008 at 7:19 pm 4

    Mr. Lind seems spot on with no exception. One addendum is that it would most likely be wise for the US to maintain some intelligence capacities and some well paid and well armed clients in both places. But it is clearly a good time to get out and fortunately, we really need the money.

    With all due respect to Duncan Kinder I do not believe that any real Sufi would accept his definition of the word, and do not think that any political faction calling itself such with which we could ally would be accurately described by the term. It’s a tad more complicated than the usual sectarian situation in the region.

    What we have now in Iraq is de facto partition, with the US funding the Sunnis enough to repress revolt… the Kurds are content with their protostate and not being interfered with, and the Shiites are happy with overall control of most of the country and their peaceful relationship with Iran. What we need to do and should have done years ago is pull in the rest of the region and bargain our way out of there. Let’s hope the next administration has brains enough to do the obvious.

  5. Duncan C Kinderon 05 Nov 2008 at 8:18 pm 5

    Re gpanfile: I do not believe that any real Sufi would accept his definition of the word, and do not think that any political faction calling itself such with which we could ally would be accurately described by the term. It’s a tad more complicated than the usual sectarian situation in the region.

    I certainly don’t want to get into a debate over who is or is not a “real Sufi.” Some mishmash that helps get the United States out of its current political / military fix works well enough for me.

    Something like what I propose is going on in Chechnya. See eg: The battle for the soul of Chechnya
    With separatist rebels embracing radical Islam, the republic’s Moscow-backed president is busy promoting a Sufi revival, finds Tom Parfitt in Khadzi Aul

    I have no idea whether these Chechen guys are real Sufis. I am merely suggesting that the United States pursue a similar policy.

  6. Sven Ortmannon 06 Nov 2008 at 1:17 am 6

    The Clausewitzian Culminating point is actually the point at which the attacker isn’t strong enough to advance against the full resistance of the defender anymore.

    I discussed the possibility of an insurgency in Taliban land before
    and I believe that the news about Afghanistan that surfaced in the past weeks indicate more smart strategies than ever before since the Taliban lost power.
    The indication of good generalship in that theater was sorely missed in the past years.

    I dislike the Lind Culminating point because it ignores costs and covers only the “we wanna win” aspect of the affair.

  7. zanegreyon 06 Jan 2009 at 4:31 pm 7

    A culminating point for the U.S. adventures in both Afghanistan and Iraq? (Not to speak of Israel)

    I recently received this from someone who thinks about these things, albeit with a very dark outlook:
    Seismic Changes In Power Structure In Middle East As Turkey Withdraws Support From Israel

    This Turkish move has grave geopolitical portents, not only as it constitutes a threat to the route constituting the most important United States supply line into Iraq, and which could have functioned as with Xenophon as the exit route for United States forces if the Straits of Hormuz are cut.

    Turkey also shields the rear of Syria and Hizbollah’s sponsor Iran. If Syria had attacked Israel with an enemy like Turkey at their back, they would have been outflanked. Now, Syria could launch their forces against Israel with their back secure. Hizbollah need not fear Turkey, nor Iran fear Turkey. This ends Israel’s long and heretofore successful courtship of Turkey under its US-aligned Kemalist party.

    This sea change may upset U.S. grand strategy in the region. The power balance in the Middle East has turned. Turkey may want from Iran the cooperation to destroy Kurdish forces in Iraq, where Turkey wishes to seize Kurdistan with its oil. Iran may desire the rest of Iraq; at least it should be quite pleased with a far better ally than Iraq could have been with the US/Israel-aligned Kurdistan “autonomous region” as a counterweight to Shia domination of the polity.

    The economic pressure of the crushing of the oil price, which one school of thought holds was contingent on, and the purpose behind, the bankrupting of Lehman Brothers, is putting severe economic pressure on Iran, and hence Gaza, Hizbollah, and Syria. They either face economic catastrophe, or launch a war under the flag of Palestinian rescue immediately to divert attention from the gravity of their economic situation. If the very purpose of destroying Lehman to crush the oil price was to weaken Iran, Syria, Russia, and Venezuela, it could be backfiring if it leads to a real war in the Middle East that cuts off the oil flows and balloons the crude price again.