The elusive Centre

The ‘Centre of Gravity’ – the hub of the enemy’s movement and capacity to wage war- is one of the concepts from Clausewitz that militaries try to turn into a practical idea, or even a system.

There are many ways it can be rendered. It can be an ability (to maintain a war economy), a psychological or political condition (to convince others to rally to your cause) or rather often, it is treated as a specific location. At its more perverse, it can be used as a substitute for the ‘decisive battle’, or in more mechanistic fashion, be turned into a doctrinaire pseudo-science.

In Afghanistan, with the US-led coalition under time pressure and political pressure to achieve rapid results before the drawdown begins (and even to slow the pace and nature of that vague drawdown), some are eager to find the enemy’s vital centre or bastion, which proper armed nationbuilding will crack. So:

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Kandahar the “center of gravity” for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and compared the importance of the offensive to the 2007 “surge” of U.S. troops that helped turn the tide in the Iraq war.

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

Mullen’s analysis also feeds off the ‘surge’ analogy. This is also potentially misleading, as the surge built on a whole host of other developments that preceded it, such as the brutally pacifying effects of ethnic/sectarian cleansing, the Sunni revolt against AQ, and a whole range of ceasefires. Arguably, stabilising Baghdad was the core of this effort – but locals in their own way were already acting independently to make the capital city quieter.

It would seem that surgically ‘fixing’ Kandahar by persuading others to lower corruption or improve their ‘governance’ will not in itself address the deeper and more wide-ranging forces that work against America’s project in the country.

Part of the problem of the centre is the issue of control: even if the Taliban have an identifiable centre, can we attack it? The answer may be depressing: their ability to operate, their ability to leave and return, and thereby present Afghans with the reality that they will endure the war and come back once the exhausted occupiers leave, hinges probably more on their relationship with Pakistan. It is possible that the Taliban have themselves endangered this relationship with their alienating behaviour in Pakistan, and not clear whether this will again change.

But the ‘centre of gravity’ seems here to be a seductive euphemism for decisive battle against an enemy ‘bastion’ in territory we can control, rather than a realistic guide to the war’s ultimate outcome.

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