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A Strategy of Exhaustion

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A Strategy of Exhaustion

by Vegetius

Download the full article: A Strategy of Exhaustion

Most Jihads do not die with a bang; they have historically gone out with a whimper. The first great wave of Islamic holy war effectively petered out within a century of the death of the Prophet Mohammed and Arabs were no longer actively leaders in the expansion of the Muslim faith after the tenth century A.D. when the peoples of the Turk branch of the Eurasian peoples picked up the banner of Islam. The last of a succession of waves of pre-industrial Jihad petered out at the walls of Vienna in 1683. As we deal with post-industrial Jihad, we may be able to learn something about Islamic holy wars of expansion that have been dealt with in the past.

Jihad was a powerful enough force that it was impossible to permanently defeat by purely military means. Unlike their Christian foes, the Muslim holy warriors were generally content to stop killing when their enemies surrendered and decided to convert to Islam. Jihads died because they reached a point of exhaustion. The most fervent warriors who sought martyrdom in battle could get it easily. This eventually left the Jihad bereft of its most enthusiastic fighters. Those less fanatic or more skillful collected enough slaves and riches in the holy wars to feel that God had rewarded them on earth for their fervor, and settled down to enjoy the good life that successful Jihad made possible. A final element in the death of successive waves of Jihad was internal dissention and struggles for power among the Jihadist leadership. The contest for control for leadership of the first Caliphate began almost immediately with the death of the Prophet Mohammed and culminated in the great Sunni-Shiite schism.

As Edward Luttwak points out in his new book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantines studied this new enemy closely and came to realize that their only hope of survival against the lethal threat of expansionist Jihadism was a strategy of exhaustion. Luttwak's work is the first really comprehensive modern study of how the Eastern Roman empire survived and largely thrived in the face of expansionist Islam for eight centuries.

Download the full article: A Strategy of Exhaustion

The author is a government employee and a former infantryman.

About the Author(s)


Sam Wilkins (not verified)

Sat, 11/28/2009 - 4:50pm

Scorpion 10,

I think you've hit the nail on the head when considering the lack of consistency in American politics. A strategy of exaustion is not politically possible in areas of strategic interest to the US. Whether Afghanistan is such an area is irrelevent, as long as it's percieved as such, the pressure for decisive sucess will remain.

Vegetius was correct to compare modern America to the Roman Empire instead of its Byzantine cousins. The Romans, when faced by Hannibal's fearsome army, adopted a strategy of exaustion under Fabius. Fabius' strategy, however, was unbearable to the proud Romans as it flew directly in the face of centuries of Roman military and strategic tradition.

I don't think the American people can accept a strategy of exaustion in the Middle East. Do we have the stomach as a nation to endure the inevitible minor defeats that Vegetius described as charecteristic of the Byzantine approach? Instead of relying on the history of other nations and their struggles, we should perhaps look closer at our own past to find solutions to the problems of our uncertain future.

Flying Carpet

Thu, 11/26/2009 - 5:26pm

I beg to disagree.

Presently we see the rich from the Arab peninsula paying in the belief to do something good. They may keep doing so for a long time as it gives them a good feeling and makes them belief that they are not just materialists.

On the other side of the equation we see volunteer from all over the world who take the offer. Some are poor (for example the Taliban is considered to pay well in Afghanistan). Other had a good education but didn't fit in so they look for another place where they are valued. Yet other may see the battle as a place to beat their inner demons.

I see it as similar to communism. As long as Moscow was paying there were people prepared to commit themselves to the communist ideals.

The writer made some big mistakes although the overall thoughts on the subject are not bad.
1) There was no contest amongst the companions of the Prophet after the death of the Prophet, the so called sunni-shia shift. There was strong unity* for at least 2 Chaliphs, which after that began to decrease but was still strong. It was not until the assassination of the 3rd Chaliph that thing got messy.
The sunni-shia shift in fact came after the 4th Caliph Ali passed away for some time. Ali who is thought by some (like the writer) to have initiated the shift actually burned alive (very rare punishment) rebels who spread rumors that he (Ali) tried to split the unity, by taking over the rulership.
2) Many of the best soldiers of Islam weren't defeated on the Battlefield. For example the best of them "Khalid bin Al-Waleed" died of old age. Many also died of other natural causes, and some important ones by assassination.
3) The new conquered people were not forced to convert. They also had the choice to pay jizya tax. Becoming Muslims would mean in some ways more obligations like conscription on top of zakat and other taxes for Muslims. Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of the Chaliphate had equal rights, regarding for example criminal law and property rights. Although some groups like the Christians were allowed to have their own laws for their own community on the conditions that they pay the tax and did not engage in usury.
4) The early Muslims like the companions of the Prophet lived extremely simple lives, not in luxurious palaces like emperors with slaves tending their every needs like the later rulers. The lives of the early rulers were so simplistic the Byzantine diplomat mistook the 2nd Caliph to be regular poor man, when he saw him in the Muslim capital.

=== Account of Early Islamic Battles including maps ===
For a (Muslim) account of the early battles of the Muslims, I recommend this (free download) book
It also explains the politics behind the battles and was written by a Pakistani General.

Even if you may not find it to be reliable, knowing how the enemy views itself will be important in understanding him.

*There was a rebellion during the first Chaliph right after the death of the Prophet. However this was not an "internal rebellion" like the sunni-shia clash. And all the "highly ranked" (in knowledge and piety) and most powerful Muslims in the community did not participate in this rebellion. The rebellion was about tribes trying to "secede from the union", by disobeying the zakat-tax (rich paying the poor) or claiming to be new prophets and attacking the "union". This is all described in the book found in the link above.

Scorpion10 (not verified)

Tue, 11/17/2009 - 6:31pm

Im glad I kept reading your article after the comment about Jihadis being less blood thirsty than their Christian counterparts. I understand that matching slaughter for slaughter does not vindicate one or the other, but please dont make the Wests default position to cede the moral high ground. Jihadis love using that line of thought.

Anyhow, you make a good case for exhaustion. It makes strategic sense, but can a democratic society adopt and execute such a calculating long term strategy? Im reminded of a quote from an instructor from the q course who had been in SOG. He claimed the US would never be able to conduct a true counter insurgency because of the math:

House Elections every 2 years
Senate Elections every 6 years
Presidential Elections every 4 years
Which all adds up to an inconsistent strategy.

I wanted to disagree, but I did the math and got the same answer. History hasn't changed things.

David Sutton (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 6:57pm

I think that Zakariah Johnson makes an excellent point at the end of his post. There does need to be a significant shift toward a policy that allows Afghanistan to stand up for itself militarily, but also one that allows for the eventual withdrawal of ISAF forces, leaving behind them a country better off than before, one that is positioned to see the actions of those foreigners in a good light.

This is crucial I believe to holding Afghanistan for the long term.

Otherwise we expend blood and treasure on what ever policy is finally pushed forward only to see the eventual return to power of forces that were able to capture those hearts and minds and hold them.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 12:49pm


I understood what you meant, but it seems that you are conflating the larger strategy with the strategy employed in Afghanistan when the two do not have to be exactly the same. Obviously they are related, but you could have an overall strategy of exhaustion with a different strategy in Afghanistan--it could be similar to the Cold War and Korea early on. And the CT strategy that some advocate is a strategy of just depends on whom you consider your enemy and, more importantly, what conditions you seek.

Zakariah Johnson (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 12:18pm

Regarding the "foolish headlong rush into Iraq" by jihadists, I think the author makes a good point. As a marine buddy of mine put it, "There's nothing really wrong with all your enemies assembling in the middle of a free fire zone." Indeed.

I think comparing the actions of Islamic states to those of Islamic terrorists--who often oppose "Muslim" states as much as they oppose non-Muslim ones has some difficulties. Non-state actors of the past like Hassn-i-Sabbah and his famous assassin cult might be a truer comparison. However, the Islamic system is very good at co-opting local populations once they have been conquered militarily. With the exception of Spain and parts of the Balkans, it's difficult to think of a country--from former Christian lands in the Egypt, the Iranian Zoroastrians to large parts of India--where the local population threw off Islam at the same time they threw off their Islamic conquerors. This is partially explained by the traditional decentralized power structure of Islamic states that co-opted local elites into supporting the system, but also such things as use of the tax code to nudge non-Muslims into seeing the benefits of conversion. The strategy of holding converts is something we would do well to study--it's easy enough to conquer a technologically backward nation & route its armies, but holding the hearts & minds of the people--especially once your army withdraws--is something else, and something Islam as a system has proven very good at.

Grant (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 11:01am

All ideologies experience periods of vigor and of decline. However it is not wise to compare extreme Islamic terrorism with massive social/state based movements of the past. It would have been more fitting to compare current Islamic terrorism with left wing terrorism of the late Cold War period.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 10:36am


It seems to me though that a strategy of exhaustion against radical islam put into practice in Afghanistan would demand a much more limited use of military force contrary to the maximalist path that we seem to be on now. Vegitius's use of the term "winning" again betrays what i think is a deep American fascination with strategies of annhilation. That was the point I was getting at.


Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 10:12am

I think Vegetius answered much of your question in paragraphs six and seven of his piece. It seems to me that he contextualized Afghanistan as part of a larger strategy of exhaustion, yet Afghanistan would require a theater strategy. His point about looking for more creative efforts within the Afghanistan theater is a good one--how to nest within a larger strategy of exhaustion while potentially using a different theater strategy.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 9:41am


Interesting piece. This issue of American strategy and what form it takes (annihilation, exhaustion, and attrition) is always an important one. Of course one must acknowledge that these forms of strategy are contextual in that it was German historian Hans Delbruke who first constructed the forms of annihilation and attrition and then many years later American historian Russel Weigley drew on them in his seminal book "The American Way of War." Unfortunately, Weigley has been hugely misunderstood and misused by numerous pundits and analysts over the years. The Coin experts have actually been the worst abusers of the Weigley thesis.

Anyway, and back to your piece, if you are right and the United States should be pursuing a strategy of exhaustion toward radical Islam then why do you think with regard to Afghanistan we take a maximalist approach of more and more and more with proclamations of victory and "winning" which hints at albeit loosely a very typical American fetish of a strategy of annihilation? I am suggesting to you that even though you lament the draw toward the perceived American Way of annihilation, with a call for existential commitment in Afghanistan you in fact fall into the strategy that you implicitly say is unworkable in the long war against radical Islam.