On War # 313: War of Exhaustion or War of Maneuver?

William S. Lind
25 August 2009

The war in Afghanistan appears to have settled into the category Delbrueck called “wars of exhaustion.” If it remains there, the U.S. cannot win. The American people will become exhausted long before the Pashtun do.

In this respect America’s situation is similar to that Germany faced in World War I. Germany knew she could not win a war of exhaustion. She therefore sought to turn it into a war of maneuver, successfully on the eastern front and almost successfully in the west in the spring of 1918 and also at sea with the U-boat campaign. The ultimate failure of the latter two efforts, an operational failure on land and, worse, a grand strategic failure at sea, meant the war of exhaustion continued. Exhaustion finally caused the home front to collapse in November, 1918.

Past is probably prologue for the U.S. in Afghanistan unless it can succeed where Germany failed. The U.S. must turn a war of exhaustion into a war of maneuver.

At first sight, such a prescription appears pointless. The granular nature of a Fourth Generation battlefield, a granularity that encompasses not only the military but also the political and moral aspects of the conflict, would appear to render any military maneuvers above the tactical level irrelevant. Great operational encirclements like those in which the German Army specialized become swords cutting through the air.

The fact that we cannot turn the Afghan war into a war of maneuver on the military level need not, however, be the end of the matter. Instead, it poses a new question: how might we turn this war of exhaustion into a war of maneuver on the political or moral levels? If we can succeed in doing either, or better both, we may still escape the certainty of defeat a continued war of exhaustion promises.

A short column cannot answer this new question; my purpose here is mainly to pose it. If, as I think it ought, it becomes the intellectual Schwerpunkt of the American high command, then I will have done my duty for one week, anyway.

But to explore a bit further, the very granularity of a Fourth Generation conflict that largely precludes maneuver on the military level may open the door to it on other levels. To see what opportunities may exist for maneuver on the political and moral levels, I think we must start by ceasing to define the enemy as “the Taliban.” That definition, while convenient for labeling Afghans we have killed or captured, may lead us astray by causing us to think of our opponents as a single, centrally-controlled entity. In a Fourth Generation conflict, the real picture is far more complex. Many Afghans who are fighting us are not doing so because of orders from Mullah Omar.

To draw a military analogy, this is not a war of continuous fronts. There are many gaps on the political and moral levels, gaps through which we may be able to maneuver if we can first identify them. Doing so may require a recasting of the questions the American leadership presents to its intelligence services.

Possibly of equal importance is a reconceptualization of our own “front.” We now appear to define that “front” on both the political and moral levels as the Afghan government. This is a fiction politically because there is a government but no state. Morally it is disastrous because the Afghan government is awash in corruption. The recent election will not affect either reality, regardless of its outcome. We seem unable to grasp the fact that in Afghanistan as in much of the world, election outcomes do not confer legitimacy.

The American senior leadership thus needs to undertake a serious and competent analysis of political and moral surfaces and gaps both in our opponent’s positions and in our own. Neither can be accomplished with blinders on. Both must be brutally honest.

It is just possible that such an analysis might offer a roadmap for political and moral maneuver, which is what we require if we are to escape the war of exhaustion. There is, of course, no guarantee; the complexity of a Fourth Generation environment may mean the task is beyond our ability. We may also discover that we can identify some surfaces and gaps yet lack the capability to exploit the gaps. This occurs not infrequently in purely military wars of maneuver.

I think nonetheless that this may be the most promising way forward. If it fails to identify political and moral gaps we can exploit with some hope of success, then logically it leads to the conclusion that we cannot escape a war of exhaustion and its inevitable outcome, our defeat. That too is useful, in that it should lead us to cut our losses and withdraw as soon as possible.

Is the American senior leadership, military and political, capable of undertaking an analysis of the Afghan war along these lines? I do not know. But I suspect that offering such a framework for analysis may be the most military theory can do for our forces now fighting a hopeless war of exhaustion.

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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