Friday, August 31, 2007

Culminating Point

In his seminal book, On War, Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz refers to a point in any military campaign at which the outcome becomes known and inevitable. In medieval times, it typically happened when one side or the other, under flag of truce, asked permission to collect the bodies of its dead. In the Napoleanic Wars, it came when the English or Russian armies found the knapsacks (in which they carried everything needed to sustain the fight) abandoned by the rapidly retreating French troops. The time at which the outcome is decided is when the truce is agreed upon. That is different from the point at which the victor realizes that the battle is done and the day is his.

Counterinsurgency, while still at least partially a warfighter's task, does not have the characteristics of large, conventional military campaigns. Al Qaeda is not likely to ride up under a white flag of parlay and ask permission to collect their dead. There will still be a Clausewitzian "culminating point," and signs are that the point is nearing. In COIN, that point will come somewhere between an apex of offensive operations aimed at securing the populace from the insurgency and the turning over of security to indigenous forces. From a military strategy standpoint, the culminating point of victory comes when the enemy realizes that his own culminating point of victory will be denied to him. It comes at the point at which he realizes that he cannot win; that he can not achieve his objectives by force of arms.

How will the enemy learn that his culminating point will be denied him? When the populace determines that his is not the righteous cause and shifts almost wholly to the counterinsurgency. Some of those promising signs are showing up in Iraq, now. Consider:

These are just three of the recent developments in the ongoing counterinsurgency in Iraq. In each of these stories, groups of people who had been either fighting with or were subjugated by the real threat in Iraq--Al Qaeda--have turned against the islamists and are now pointing their weapons at the Iraqi affiliate of Osama bin Laden's loosely organized terrorist group. Earlier this year, bloggers and some media outlets began reporting on what was called the "Anbar Awakening," which saw tribal leaders in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province join forces against Al Qaeda. Groups that were shooting at coalition forces on a daily basis began allying themselves with the U.S. led coalition after getting fed up with Al Qaeda's hard line, fundamentalist approach.

Early on in the post-Saddam era, the coalition erred in ignoring and attempting to marginalize the tribal influence in Iraq. It alienated the tribal leaders, and that led some to join forces with the enemy of their perceived enemy. Al Qaeda, however, committed a much graver mistake than mere alienation. They tried to disrupt and reorganize centuries old cultural mores into their brand of radical islamic law. Tribal sheikhs, who even under Saddam wielded considerable influence over local and provincial affairs, found themselves subjected to brutal repression and decided that they'd had enough. When coalition forces rescued a popular and powerful Sunni sheikh and restored him to his tribal region, the tide turned. Al Anbar province is now void of Al Qaeda influence. The populace in Al Anbar, within a matter of weeks, realized that Al Qaeda's islamic fundamentalism was not the righteous cause. The coalition, who finally understood how Arabs function as a society, won the day. The culminating point of victory came when groups like the 1920's Revolutionary Brigade stood shoulder to shoulder with U.S. combat forces, and slew Al Qaeda fighters by the dozens. Sunni and Americans fought together, died together, and denined the enemy his own culmination point.

It is still too early to tell if the culmination point is imminently upon the theater. However, given the fact that the average insurgency lasts between seven and eight years, and given the fact that we have only been fighting this as a COIN operation for about a year and a half, such promising trends like the Anbar Awakening and the developments reported above hold great promise. As the enemy's grip on the populace loosens, the fear of retribution is lessened. As that fear fades, ordinary Iraqis will be emboldened to provide an ever increasing flow of intelligence. Those who are out of place will be pointed out. Roadside IED locations will be reported. Caches of explosives and weapons will be revealed. The process, if it plays out as others before it, will grow somewhat slowly in size and intensity. And then quite suddenly, a "tipping point," a Clauswitzian culmination, will come.

Watch for it. It will be a historic moment.