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.

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Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
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Alexandria, Virginia 22314
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