Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why there's no military solution in Iraq

Also at DKos.

We often hear that there is no military solution in Iraq, but seldom hear anyone explain why that is. I doubt you'll find any two military "experts" who agree on this subject (or anything else concerning warfare, for that matter), but here's my take.

Matters of Gravity

"Center of gravity" is one of those warfare terms so ubiquitous, defined so broadly and so consistently misused that it's almost meaningless. Nonetheless, I believe the center of gravity concept is critical to understanding our situation in Iraq.

"Center of gravity" is the common interpretation of the German word Schwerpunkt, which 19th century Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz described as "the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends." He described major battles "…a collision between two centers of gravity; the more forces we can concentrate in our center of gravity, the more certain and massive the effect will be."

The problem with most guerrilla style forces is that their weight is distributed so broadly they don't present a "center" that can be defeated in a major, decisive battle. In Iraq, we don't just face a guerilla force; we face several of them. Some of them are at war with each other, but all of them have one common enemy--us.

Every time we go after one militia or another, we expose ourselves to attrition in an effort that will not defeat the target group, but can create (and has created) a shift in the balance of power among rival factions that allows one or more of them to renew their destructive efforts on the faction we just weakened.

Some have referred to this phenomenon as "Whack-a-Mole." I call it a "cat stampede," and there aren't enough cowboys in the world to herd all those critters back in the corral.

Initiave, OODA Loops and Moebius Strips

The OODA Loop model (observe, orient, decide, act) was devised by the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd, considered brash even by fighter pilot standards, based his decision cycle model on his experiences in air-to-air combat, where the objective is to get inside the enemy aircraft's "circle" and arrive at a point where you can shoot it down from behind.

At the operational and strategic levels of our war in Iraq, the enemy has stayed comfortably inside of our decision/action circle since the staged fall of Saddam Hussein's statue. Whatever we do or don't do, our dispersed enemy manages to maintain the initiative, and that, more than any other factor, is the key to success in warfare.

They adapt and we adapt and they adapt and we adapt, but at the end of the day, they make progress while we continue to track on a Moebius strip, constantly changing directions and orientations, but always arriving back at the same place.

The Decisive Point?

The New York Times reports that the kick off of the third Battle of Baghdad has been announced. The Iraqi general in charge of the security operation took command on Monday, but decided to wait until Wednesday to make an official announcement.

I noted on Tuesday that they appeared to have launched the operation without sufficient forces to execute. It look I'm not the only one concerned about that.

Delays have been numerous. Iraqi Army units from other parts of the country failed to arrive in Baghdad as scheduled. Iraqi politicians and military officers argued over who would command what units and control what parts of the city. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began feeling political pressure to kick off the operation, but didn't want to start it prematurely. Sadiq al-Rikabi, one of Maliki's advisers, said, “It could be like an abortion for this operation, finishing it before it starts.”

But has Maliki gone off half-cocked? It will take time to phase in the additional 17,000 U.S. "surge" troops, and that's assuming Congress doesn’t stop Mr. Bush from sending them.

Time will tell. I'd frankly like to see the Iraqi forces clear and hold the city on their own. That would be a major confidence builder, proving to themselves that they can actually execute operations and achieve their objectives.

But Baghdad is not a center of gravity in the Clausewitzean sense. Running the militias, terrorists and criminals out of town, if that can be done, won't "win" the war. It will still be up to the various factions within the country to learn to live at peace with each other.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.


  1. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Also, check out THE WAR OF THE FLEA, and old Vietnam era classic.


  2. I'll look for it at the library. Thanks.

  3. WaterGenie024:35 AM

    Hey Jeff I was wondering what you thought about that 1st Lieutenant who refused to goto Iraq. Personally I think they should throw the book at him because if he had such strong feelings over the war he should have resigned like any officer who gave half a damn about his subordinates would have done. Despite my own feelings about the war I believe that any officer who would run out on his men right during a deployment is doing so only to save their own skin.

  4. Sky-Ho9:28 AM


    If you are talking about Lt. Watada, according to his father, he tried to resign.

  5. Anonymous11:54 AM

    The greatest thing the US had going for it after the fall of the Soviet Union was its super power status. How can we say we're a superpower now? What's so super about our power? But I think the reason for that is not that our military is weak (it clearly isn't), it's that our national leadership is. It's like giving a 2 year old an industrial grade power tool: too much to handle.

    I'm no military expert, but I think the new nature of war has largely passed by the Pentagon. They're still plotting and planning for WW2 style engagements, where there's a "proper" enemy that wears uniforms and has armor, infantry, and planes.

    Blah. This really does feel like some big corporation whose management is just woefully out of touch. Unfortunately the consequences of their failure are far more serious than filing Chapter 11.