View Full Version : Symmetrical Defense Strategies?

Bill Moore
05-19-2011, 09:29 AM
I recently finished Decoding Clausewitz (highly recommended), and after reading his thoughts on the superiority of defense versus offense it hit me that to some degree the coalition and the Taliban are both implementing defensive strategies.

We initially conducted an aggressive offense, and many AQ and Taliban were foolish enough to stand and fight a largely conventional fight against superior U.S. forces. However, once they retreated across the border into Pakistan we both implemented largely defensive strategies. We continue a series a pin prick attacks and limited maneuver, as do the Taliban, but there is no concerted offensive by either side that seeks a decisive victory. For the coalition to conduct a decisive offense, it would have to attack into Pakistan (beyond the occassional drone strike and raid), which at the moment is not politically acceptable. For the Taliban to conduct a decisive offensive it would have to be able to defeat coalition forces in battle and drive them from Afghanistan. Not going to happen anytime soon.

Winning the support of the populace really won't deter either side, as long as the Taliban has sanctuary in Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan. The center of gravity is still the will of the Taliban to continue to resist, and I suspect our will to continue to resist is our center of gravity. Ultimately that will transition to the Afghan security forces' will to resist. I see no reason this war coudn't continue endlessly if neither side tired of the fighting, but of course as history has demonstrated repeatedly eventually one side will decide the investment of blood and treasure isn't worth the victory.

If both sides are locked in a defensive strategy, and both are seeking victory by breaking the will of the other to resist, then will our current strategy succeed? Will a focus on the population somehow transition to the Taliban having less will to fight? If they resist because we're there, and we are the underlying cause for the conflict I see no logical correlation in a population centric strategy that ignores the continued safe havens in Pakistan. Furthermore, it can be assumed that at least a percentage of our billions in aid to Pakistan are being diverted to support the Taliban (as is much of our aid money in Afghanistan), so we continue to fund the Taliban indirectly with our current approach, which lessens the pressure on them to cease resisting.

Clausewitz wrote that political conditions have transformed most wars into mongrel affairs, in which the original hostilities have to twist and turn among conflicting interests to such a degree that they emerge very much attenuated.

That seems to be exactly what has happened to our strategy in Afghanistan, Clausewitz also wrote that, "the balance of military force is not the critical strategic variable, what matters is the relative strength of the attacker and the defenders determination."

Why we may have more relative strength in killing power, but since we are unable to apply it effectively (against TB safehavens), that seems to be largely irrelevant unless we plan to sustain the Afghans in a defensive posture for many years to come after our combat forces depart, and that assumes that the Afghans will be willing to do this.

In a symmetrical defense strategic war who has the advantage? If we don't have the advantage how do we achieve it?

05-19-2011, 10:15 PM
We initially conducted an aggressive offense, and many AQ and Taliban were foolish enough to stand to fight a largely conventional fight against superior U.S. forces. However, once they retreated across the border into Pakistan we both implemented largely defensive strategies.

This brings up a question I've had in mind for a while. I'm not in any an expert on military affairs, but I'd appreciate an opinion from those who are.

We've heard a lot about the clear-hold-build sequence. It seems to me that in the "clear" phase, we clearly have initiative on our side. We decide where we will clear, and when. Because we are initiating, we can prepare our logistics and support and employ our full range of options in that space. Because the enemy doesn't know where we will move next, they're forced into a responsive position.

It seems to me that once we transition to "hold", that's reversed. Unless the enemy has been completely eliminated (in which case there's no problem), they can move quietly back into areas once cleared. They can choose where and when they will challenge our hold. They can watch us and look for weaknesses in our routine. We have to distribute assets and resources across the entire area being held, and because we don't know where our hold will be challenged, we have to be prepared to support forces anywhere in the held area. Now they have the initiative.

So the question: how do you transition from "clear" to "hold" without surrendering the operational initiative to the other side?

Apologies if the question is simplistic; as I said it's not my field of expertise.

Ken White
05-20-2011, 01:18 AM
The issue is really that simple. You have nailed the fatal flaw in the theory of counterinsurgency warfare. :eek:

In any form of warfare if one cedes the initiative one can only achieve an acceptable solution as opposed to a 'victory' (bad word, that...). Further, the longer one fails to regain and retain initiative, the lower must be expectations for that settlement. :wry:

The defense is stronger than is offense but defensive wars rarely result in desirable solutions, generally offense is required for a measure of success. Thus one should avoid ceding the initiative other than locally, briefly as a ploy or in trading space for time -- and should do so with full intention of regaining the initiative as rapidly as possible as delays in doing so tend to increase the costs (i.e. Afghanistan...).

Wise governments will not let a situation deteriorate to the point where clearing is necessary, if they do so, it is too late. The only answers at that point are a brutal and total clearing -- not a all politically acceptable today -- or the clear and hold effort (Building is really optional...). Attempting to 'hold' is unwise; attempting to do that with inadequate mass is more than unwise, it is potentially dangerous. One can do the hold thing but it will invariably lead to a very lengthy and costly operation with at best a marginal chance of what one might call success. Holding is best avoided.

Bill Moore
05-20-2011, 06:58 AM
Ken and Dayuhan,

I am no expert on Clausewitz, but I believe he was trying to say (and this is what I meant) is defense is superior because it saps the will of the attacker over time (the bang is not worth the buck). He considered guerrilla warfare defensive in nature (although guerrillas obviously conduct offensive actions). He characterizes offense as attempting to achieve a "decisive" blow via a few major attacks. If a nation engages in guerrilla warfare the enemy cannot defeat them with a decisive attack because there is no center of gravity (large fielded force) to destroy. Instead it is a war of attrition, and what both sides are trying to attrite is the other's will to continue to resist. My point is neither side as the capacity or will due to political constraints to launch a series of decisive attacks, so the war is more about psychology than physical terrain. This is why the first SF training qualification course was called the psywar course.

Getting at Dayuhan's question, clearing is a minor offensive action (relatively speaking) within a larger defense based strategy. Counter attacks to regain lost ground is still considered defense. True we tend to function best when we have achievable objectives, and clearing is something the military can do well (as demonstrated repeatedly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam). The hold and build phase only makes sense if we employ it using the ink spot strategy, where we are sincere about not giving up ground because we're only expanding out within our capacity to hold. That doesn't mean we can't continue to conduct deep attacks to continue to disrupt the enemy and further undermine his morale and will to resist, but attempting to clear and hold great swaths of territory simultaneously IMO simply sets us up for effective counter attacks that undermines our credibility and national will to resist. The whole hold and build piece does seem flawed, and I think it only works in select cases. The build to me isn't economic development, but the capacity of the host nation to hold without coalition support.

If the goal is to exhaust the other side's will, then how important is offensive initiative in this type of fight? It still plays a role, but there seems to be something we are missing. Surging gives us the flexibility to take more initiative, but it also allows us to exhaust ourselves quicker than the enemy (perhaps). Surging is like sprinting a 800m race, you give it all you have for a relatively short duration. If we can't defeat the Taliban (in this case) during our sprint, we may not have much left to continue racing if it all the sudden transitions into a marathon.

I do not think the Taliban can defeat us, but we can defeat ourselves if we pursue a strategy that exhausts our will. If we are going to surge, then in my view we do something decisive with it, and that means doing the currently unacceptable and attacking their safehavens whereever they may be, and quit funding those who fund the Taliban. Simply surging to maintain a greater defensive posture will simply result in depleting our will. If my assumption that the Taliban can't defeat us, then an alternative strategy would be to downsize to a sustainable force, and continue the defensive strategy until the Taliban lose the will to continue fighting. If we can demonstrate that we have the strategy and means to go long term, then we rob them of any hope of eventual victory.

This is written quickly, but I think you get my key points. Designing a viable and sustainable defensive strategy is taking initiative. Admittedly it is a different view of initiative, but one that might be more applicable for Afghanistan.

Forgot to add that it doesn't matter how much we clear, hold and build if it does not defeat the enemy's will to resist, then they will continue to fight. The clear, hold and build approach can be misleading if it is not used correctly, and in some cases it is inappropriate altogether.

05-24-2011, 03:42 PM
Bill, studying the Seminole Indian wars might be helpful? They fought almost entirely defensive. To this day that is why so many places in Florida have the word "Fort" in front of the city name. The Army decided thay couldn't beat them so it kinda adopted a policy of localized containment. John Anderson "Seminole Wind" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGoBQIhyFFM

Seminole War Map

Steve Blair
05-24-2011, 04:31 PM
The Seminole War is a little more complex than that, and really isn't a good example of localized containment (due to environmental and terrain considerations, along with troop limitations). A better example might be the development of the defensive strategies used in Texas and New Mexico/Arizona. Robert Utley has a good discussion of the latter in "Frontiersmen in Blue," while Texas has been examined in a number of places (by Utley in FiB as well as "Frontier Regulars"...there are other sources as well but I'm not close to my books ATM).