In ancient times, when armies, very small numbers compared to today’s militaries, faced each other, one of the most coveted thrusts, among several battle tactics, was to get to the enemy’s standard, the flag that symbolised the other side’s fighting presence.
Losing the standard was highly demoralising for a side, not just because it was symbolic but also because the standard was always close to the commander, at the heart, and its fall meant the centre had fallen. The enemy force, away from the centre, even if largely intact, would generally retreat rather than putting up a fight.
Today’s wars are more complex, non-linear affairs. Proximity has given way to remote targeting. We generally kill from a distance, sometimes across continents. The standards are gone but the concept hasn’t. We now talk of Centre of Gravity (CoG) or key nodes. The war has become a multi-layered, multifaceted affair but somewhere lies that point which, when hit, will bring the war to an end. That point is the modern equivalent of the ancient standard.
For instance, nuclear targeting, in theory, purports to decapitate a state’s civilian and military leadership and take out the infrastructure that would hold the state together and allow it to retaliate. Ditto for conventional aerial strikes, the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia being a case in point.
As I wrote elsewhere in 2009, “Air power theorists, in developing ideas about striking key nodes, have arrived at the concept of parallel war which is a function of simultaneous and coordinated operations against all the key nodes in the system and can only be conducted through an offensive air campaign since air power is the superior medium for prosecuting these operations.
“But the idea of parallel war must, and does, go beyond the use of air power. The vital need to hit and degrade the centre of gravity can be applied to all types of warfare, even the irregular war we are witnessing now…”.
However, irregular war posits a difficulty. Where does one find the CoG and the key nodes?
Answering this question is crucial for planners in developing a response at four levels: political, strategic, theatre and tactical.
At a time when the Pakistani military is engaged in Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, this question becomes even more important because it is linked to another one: how successful were the previous operations?
In fact, the question of success throws up yet another question: can the success or failure of operations in an irregular war be defined in Clausewitzean terms?
Additionally, in this kind of war the responding forces face another problem: the high degree of operational and organisational autonomy that these groups maintain. This is not a new model. Famous Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal in his book, Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat, writes:
“The new groups, such as that to which [Lieutenant] Khaled [Islambouli, who killed Sadat] belonged, were known as ‘anquds, the Arabic for a bunch of grapes, each ‘anqud being separate and self-contained, so that if plucked from the main bunch none of the other ‘anquds would suffer, nor would the removal of one grape on a bunch affect the other grapes.” (pp.253)
This flexibility, combined with the increasing ability of these groups to find new recruits, makes them protean in nature. This means that simply finishing off a group or even many groups will not put an end to this war. Put another way, no leader or leaders or a group’s core command constitute the CoG or the key nodes. The most that can be achieved in strikes, aerial or ground, that can take out a central leader or a few leaders is to get some respite that such degradation always brings. But those who are gone will be replaced by others, often more difficult to tackle than the previous lot.
A good example is the killing and capture, in the last 13 years, of hundreds of Al Qaeda leaders, big and small, including the top man, Osama bin Laden. The world is no safer today than it was when they were alive.
Corollary 1: physical elimination of leaders in this war, while necessary, is not a sufficient condition for winning it.
Corollary 2: Tactical and theatre operations, while important, can only do this much and no more.
Corollary 3: the use of force, in order to translate into utility of force, will need to do more than just physically eliminate leaders and capture space.
Corollary 4: going into an area, in this case North Waziristan, and finding ammo and explosives and IED factories – rudimentary labs that do not require an elaborate infrastructure – while an important part of theatre-tactical operations, cannot ensure full control.
Corollary 5: success is to be determined by whether the idea has been degraded, if not entirely killed.
But how does one kill an idea? Can an idea be killed?
The CoG in this war, then, is not the leaders and fighters. It’s not the physical infrastructure, which, in any case, will be very basic, nothing like the huge techno-centric command centres of the fictitious characters that James Bond has to neutralise in films.
The CoG is the idea that motivates people, regardless of whether such motivation is right or wrong.
The terrorist knows this too. [NB: I use the term ‘terrorist’ in a statist framework without getting into its definitional problems.] This is why, operationally, he will never work along a single axis (the term is used figuratively rather than in a literal, territory-specific sense) because doing so would deprive him of his advantage and allow the security forces to focus their strength, which is always the advantage of any superior force. Operating along multiple axes is the best bet for terrorist groups. Why?
This is how I argued the point in a 2009 article: “It [multiple axes] opens up several fronts for the security forces; it spreads them thin; it engages them in the periphery; it creates confusion; and, most importantly, the multiplicity of attacks, through media coverage, shows [the groups] to be more powerful than they really are.
“This last advantage is crucial from the terrorists’ perspective. It begets them the psychological advantage; prevents a correct assessment of their numbers and outreach; shows the state to be incapable of addressing the problem and so on.”
Military operations, then, must be supplemented by planning at the strategic and political levels. In any war, a “strategic planner would like to engage the enemy in the periphery while keeping his own nucleus of operations intact and secure. By the same token, the enemy must avoid getting caught in a war of attrition in the periphery.”
Terrorist groups know this. Military operations [in irregular war]
have limited utility as a standalone exercise, even when conducting them becomes important. They end up extracting a heavier cost from the people than degrading the real enemy. This fact must not be lost sight of.
The utility of military operations must, therefore, be determined in the narrow context in which they are conducted. To expect of them anything more than theatre-tactical is to assign to them an objective they simply cannot achieve. Terrorist groups know this because it is crucial for their survival. The state and the people must appreciate this too because it is equally vital for their survival.
The CoG in this war is the idea. The state has to fight the idea with an idea. That front requires bringing the state in sync with the society. Operations can merely provide the space to the state and society to do that.
This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Hilal, the Armed Forces’ Magazine.