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Finding the ISIS Center of Gravity: Why Does It Have to Be So Complicated?
A recent article from Col Robert Dixon brilliantly detailed the mess of Joint understanding and application of Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity (COG).[i] Like others before him, he argued that the concept is confusing to planners and leaders alike, and that the search for this Holy Grail-esque of targets has led to strategic level failures in conflicts since World War II. Dixon is largely correct in that US doctrine has made the COG concept almost unusable, but the question is why do we need to make it so complicated? Perhaps if we remove the need for a COG to be something physical that we can bomb, we can look at an adversary as a system, and seek out a binding element of that system. In the case of ISIS, properly identifying their COG will not only help lead to an eventual victory, but uphold Clausewitz’s classic principle once again.
The Prussian wrote “Out of these [dominant characteristics of both belligerents] a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. This is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”[ii] Strategists and armchair theorists are aware of this quote and have been misapplying it for years. LtCol Antulio Echevarria did everyone a service in 2002 when he sheds light on the concept by reminding us that the idea stems from engineering, and that a COG is “not a source of strength, but a factor of balance.”[iii] So rather than search for that key ISIS strength or weakness, we should examine what would ultimately push ISIS off balance and knock them over?
The search for an opponent’s COG, for that balance point, must use an interdisciplinary process. The myopic antagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove General Jack D. Ripper framed the idea best, albeit with the wrong conclusion, when he stated that “war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.”[iv] However, in modern warfare, the situation has changed to the point that the military may not necessarily have the all-encompassing time/training/inclination for proper strategic thought. When strategists search for a COG, or worse, try to develop multiple COGs, they may not have the broad background needed to accomplish the task. The military specialists become the myopic ones. The search for the COG must include detailed analysis of all aspects of an enemies culture, economy, religion, fielded forces and abilities, leadership, terrain and weather, population, internal and external politics, transportation needs and abilities, and myriad other factors. COGs are difficult, elusive creatures to say the least, but that does not mean that they are not worth the hunt, and the personnel developing them should not be limited to the military.
Enter ISIS. The Western strategy for defeating lacks strategic coherence, at least in appearance if not in form. Airstrikes and targeted raids, the functions that the United States performs excellently, are not having the strategic effects desired by the public or politicians. Attacking key leaders and oil refineries make for good headlines, and both targets fall into a Joint understanding of COGs. The West is attacking and destroying these targets along with ISIS’s fielded forces, yet the war continues. The West needs to analyze ISIS as a system, and through that analysis a COG will hopefully emerge that we can channel our full efforts against.
So what makes ISIS run? What is their hub of all power and movement? What will throw them off balance? What is their Center of Gravity? Journalist Graeme Wood provided the answer to all of these questions in March 2015 with his article “What ISIS Really Wants.”[v] Wood explains how ISIS has rejected modernism, and emphatically embraced a strict interpretation of Islam that many see as medieval. He writes:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.[vi]
The rest of the article fleshes out how deeply rooted ISIS is in their pursuit of not only establishing a caliphate, but in bringing about a final confrontation between “Rome” (think Christianity) and Islam. They publicize that they will suffer enormous setbacks before their final victory. In essence, their very beliefs insist that every time we strike them with bombs, drones, Special Forces, or effective resistance from Iraqi/Kurd/Syrian forces it is simply a logical part of their greater plan. Even when the West succeeds militarily, ISIS still sees it as a twisted victory. Therefore, Wood shows us that ISIS’s COG cannot be found on the battlefield. It is not fielded forces, their capital, or anything else physical.
ISIS’s COG is their ideology. Whether that ideology is a strict interpretation or bastardization of the Koran is irrelevant to COG identification. What matters is that the message is what is keeping the recruits flowing, the fighters fighting, and the people trapped under their rule in line. The problem to military planners and politicians alike is how to target their COG.
The military obviously prefers targets that can be destroyed with some application of force. This is a natural outgrowth from the fact that militaries exist for the primary purpose of delivering violence. It is harder to channel that violence towards an idea. A military can kill the people who carry the idea, but in today’s inter-connected world, the idea will continue beyond the breath of individuals. Indeed, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and numerous other groups have shown just how resilient an idea can be, even in the face of massive and effective violence concentrated on its people. The analogy holds up equally well when one considers how much punishment the Germans, Japanese, and even the North Vietnamese endured.
Naturally, this article is not the first to suggest that combating ISIS’s ideology is the key to long term success. Rather, it urges the proper application of Clausewitz’s COG principle to help anti-ISIS forces to channel their efforts into the quickest, more assured method of victory. But simply identifying the COG is not enough. A plan to exploit the COG needs to be developed.
Several suggestions have been put forth, but here are some actions that Clausewitz would hopefully agree are useful in concentrating efforts against the ISIS COG. They are culled not only from military thinking and efforts, but from across the spectrum of international and human relations.
- Counter-narrative. The West needs to support not only a counter narrative to ISIS’s radical form of Islam, but needs to actively help push the ideas to ISIS’s target recruits. This is absolutely the best way to fight their ideology, but offering something different and desirable. The counter-narrative also needs to include messages and support from leading Islamic teachers, leaders, and countries worldwide.
- Attack ISIS’s ability to spread their message. The hacker group Anonymous has taken a very public lead on this issue.[vii] Western Cyber Forces need to combine electronic attacks on ISIS’s communications to hinder their ability to spread their message. When fighting an idea, it should prove highly effective to also fight the ability to transmit that idea. The counter-argument is that taking down ISIS sites and accounts that are easy to access is not as useful as monitoring them, but when you’re fighting an idea it can be more useful to make the idea more difficult to receive.
- Welcome Syrian/Iraqi Refugees. A key component of ISIS’s ideology is that Islam is locked in a deadly confrontation with the West. When Western states deny refugees a safe haven, it plays into the ISIS narrative. Fear mongering amongst Western people and politicians will do more to support ISIS than it will do to secure Western states.
- Classic Counter-Insurgency in contested/recently cleared areas. The West is historically bad at utilizing small teams to fight insurgencies because we typically lack the patience. However, when allowed the freedom and resources to secure small areas, counter-insurgency programs that place small teams directly with local populations have proven themselves repeatedly since Vietnam. In areas of Iraq and Syria, these teams should incorporate volunteers from refugees that are willing to be trained as militia and returned home to fight for their own countries. A local connection to these militias will help the West avoid the appearance and necessity of occupation forces.
- Reach out with real economic/social plans to Muslims around the world. This is one of those options that is outside the militaries hands, but is vital. Support agencies around the world need to reach out to their indigenous Islamic populations and lend a helping hand. They need to help provide economic opportunities and bridge the divide between them and the population majority. Fear and repression are pushing people to seek the message ISIS is spreading.
- Share information. Western states and the US in particular have come a long ways since 9/11 in sharing intelligence. However, intelligence agencies have an almost inbred resistance to sharing information, and this will hinder response to ISIS and in stopping future attacks like those seen in Paris, Beirut, California, and numerous other locations. Senior military and political leaders need to push information to each other and help build a united front against ISIS.
- Target people with capability. The US loves to publicize successful attacks against “key leaders” in any modern conflict. However, these leaders may not be as important to their operations as we think they are. As Retired General Stanley McChrystal recently suggested, to keep the pressure on ISIS we need to attack the people who are capable of carrying out important tasks.[viii] They may not be leadership, but instead financiers, smugglers, and recruiters to name just a few.
These actions would prove as a logical place to start from to attack ISIS’s COG. Proper application of Clausewitz not only demonstrates that COGs are singular and overarching in a conflict, but that they can help us frame a conflict and develop a strategy capable of ending that conflict. In the case of ISIS, their COG is their ideology, and we should focus our efforts to defeat it. A continuing game of global wack-a-mole combined with endless airstrikes will not end this conflict. So for the sake of American credibility, Parisian vengeance, world security, and of Dead Carl’s honor, the West needs to put their focus on ISIS’s COG.
[i] Robert Dixon, Clausewitz, Center of Gravity, and the Confusion of a Generation of Planners, Small Wars Journal [20 Oct 2015]: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/clausewitz-center-of-gravity-and-the-confusion-of-a-generation-of-planners#_edn18
[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Index edition, trans. and ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: University of Princeton, 1984), 595.
[iii] Antulio Joseph Echevarria, Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: Changing our Warfighting Doctrine – Again! (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002), vi.
[iv] Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick, Columbia Pictures, 1969.
[v] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic [March 2015]: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
[vii] Dominique Mosbergen, “Anonymous Declares War on ISIS After Paris Attacks,” Huffington Post [November 16, 2015]: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/anonymous-isis_5649610ae4b045bf3defc173.
[viii] Scott Faith, “GEN McChrystal on ISIS: Four Tips From Someone Who Actually Knows How to Fight Terrorists,” Havokjournal.com [September 14, 2015]: havokjournal.com/national-security/gen-mcchrystal-on-isis-four-tips-from-someone-who-actually-knows-how-to-fight-terrorists/.