September 11, 2012

Counterterrorism's Center of Gravity Problem

Reading John Arquilla's latest Foreign Policy piece makes, me, as I am wont to, think about dead Prussians. Arquilla takes a look at the battle for Obama's "strategic soul" and contrasts it to Reagan's own deliberations about the best response to the first wave of Middle Eastern terrorists to strike the West. Arquilla, relying on intelligence histories of the period, argues that Reagan briefly considered unleashing special operations and intelligence operatives against the terror masterminds:

Soon after that weekend conclave of experts, President
Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 138 -- most of which is
still highly classified. Christopher Martin's declassified history of political
and military policy during this period points out that the directive called for
"secret FBI and CIA paramilitary squads and use of existing Pentagon military
units -- such as Green Berets and the Navy SEALs -- for conducting what amounted
to guerrilla war against guerrillas...a de
declaration of war."

As Arquilla notes, Reagan ultimately stepped back from the brink. He was persuaded by military advisors concerned about an "unfocused revenge approach." Moreover, the United States had conventional tools for disrupting terrorist sponsors such as Libya. There are certainly parallels to today's concerns over the use of special operations forces, intelligence, proxy fighters, and unmanned aerial systems against terrorists, but most of the conversation about the uses of these elements of national power have been remarkably content-free. Arquilla does us a great service by dredging up a historical episode with some teaching value. 

The phrase "unfocused revenge approach" is actually an oblique acknowledgment of a central problem of counterterrorist strategy: finding the enemy's center of gravity (COG). The COG is a relatively minor concept in Clausewitz that nonetheless has engendered a good deal of misunderstanding. I will not bore readers with the details, but want to point to a recent eludication of the concept by the Strategic Studies Institute's Antulio Echevarria. As I noted in an article I wrote on the subject a couple years ago, Echevarria makes the point that the COG is essentially "effects-based."

Drawn from classical physics, Echevarria explains that the COG should be considered the "point where the forces of gravity can be said to converge within an object, the spot at which the object's weight is balanced in all directions." Striking at it or upsetting it can cause the target to lose its balance or equilbrium. The catch is that to have a COG, an object must have sufficient connectivity between its parts. The concept does not apply if the enemy elements are disaggregated. For example, the Axis powers in World War II had no COG and barely cooperated with each other. Echevarria chided doctrine writers for often assuming a single COG bound together a disaggregated set of enemies.

Reagan's advisors were ultimately grasping for a COG. They couldn't find one, because the terrorist threats facing America in the 80s had little to do with each other. The bombing of American forces in Beirut involved Iran and its local allies, and the mercenary Abu Nidal Organization and its Libyan backers were another matter entirely.  Thus, Reagan and his advisors were undestandably reluctant about conducting a wide-ranging war. Diplomatic complications were a concern, and the Cold War conventional balance in Europe as well as side contests in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia demanded attention. Nonetheless, Reagan committed to tackling both issues separately--and somewhat unsuccessfuly. Conventional force against Libya did not halt their acts of terror, and Iran's use of proxy groups and proclivity for terrorism is still a constant in its foreign policy.

Today, there is still a rigorous debate over the structure and dynamics of al-Qaeda. That debate is complicated by the fact that al-Qaeda, like most violent non-state actors seeking to survive, exists in a murky realm. Intelligence--closed or open source--shines a light into the cave but cannot illuminate the entire structure. The main problem with the targeted killing program is precisely uncertainty over who the targets really are and how their deaths lead to strategic effect. Much of the structure was more visible after the September 11 attacks, and it became clear that the COG was al-Qaeda's base system in Afghanistan. Destroying this system in an military assault and aggressively targeting its financial links complicated our understanding of the COG. Moreover, al-Qaeda and its affiliaties worldwide today may not have a single COG, just as the Axis lacked a common connectivity that gave them order and purpose.

Al-Qaeda is certainly less dissegrated than the complex reality behind the 1980s idea of a comprehensive terrorist network targeting the West. Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann, and Rafaello Pantucci make a case here that the organization's middle managers are precisely the connective tissue that would constitute a COG, and others have discussed AQ's structure without the use of Clausewitzian theory. Still, there is a risk today that without a strong sense of where the blow should land, our efforts will be unfocused. And as in the 1980s, there are also competing strategic priorites that decisionmakers will inevitably have to manage. Getting the COG right will be a difficult--but ultimately essential--task for American strategists.