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Strategy, Power and Diffusion

“….and therefore, two kinds of reactions are possible on the defending side, depending whether the attacker is to perish by the sword or by his own exertions.

                                                               – Carl von Clausewitz,  On War

 “Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”

                                                                 – Sun Tzu,  The Art of War 

A recent estimate for the cost of the war in Afghanistan by the Congressional Research Office is $443 billion dollars to occupy and fight a Pakistani-supported insurgency in a primitive country whose annual GDP is a mere $ 27 billion. A  figure that itself inflated by $ 3-4 billion is remittances, $ 4 billion in NGO aid and $14 billion in direct US aid (2010 figure); when you then subtract opium smuggling ($ 4 billion), Afghanistan’s legitimate economic activity may only be a miniscule GDP of  $ 2 – 3 billion.

This does not, of course, include the cost of ten years of lavish bribes for Pakistan, a portion of which was used by the ISI to support the Taliban  killing American and ISAF  soldiers  and Afghan civilians.

This is not a cost-effective or strategic way to run a war. In fact, even for a nation as wealthy as the United States there is nothing in Afghanistan worth such an expenditure of blood and treasure, especially when the bulk of our enemies appear to be based in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. You can approach a strategic problem directly or indirectly but to do so indirectly in the most expensive way logistically possible makes little sense. For example:

….Since the ‘war to end all wars’, however, war has not exactly stood still.  Although the US Defense Logistics Agency rather quaintly describes its mission in terms of a supply chain extending ‘from factory to foxhole’, it is, above all, the mobility of military violence that is central to the conduct of late modern war.  But Creveld is adamant that since 1945 the operational freedom of modern ground forces has not markedly increased, not least because their prized mobility is absolutely dependent on supplies of petrol and gasoline.  Since the end of the Second World War the use of petroleum-based fuels by the US military has soared, and as its stripped-down forces have been expected to do more with less (through technological change and outsourcing) so the fuel expended per soldier has increased by 175 per cent to an average of 22 gallons (83 litres) per day. [viii]  As Obama had US forces ‘surge’ into Afghanistan in 2009 so ISAF’s daily fuel consumption rocketed from two million to over four million litres a day. Given these volumes, it is scarcely surprising that the death-dealing capacities of the US military and its allies should have been tied in knots by ‘umbilical cords’ far more convoluted than Creveld could ever have imagined.

There are three main supply networks to be disentangled in turn.  All of them are ground lines of communication.  Air transportation is extremely, usually prohibitively expensive, and only four airports in Afghanistan are accessible to non-military aircraft, so that until 2011 only 20 per cent of cargo was flown in.  Similarly, onward delivery to combat outposts and forward operating bases has usually only involved airdrops if other options are too dangerous. Still, by the start of 2010 around 30-40 per cent of bases were being supplied by air because the Taliban controlled much of Highway 1, the ring road that loops between Afghanistan’s major cities, and its IED attacks on NATO and Afghan forces were increasingly effective.  The high cost of airdropping pallets of fuel, ammunition, water and supplies has imposed all sorts of fuel economies on the military as it attempts to reduce its carbon footprint – ‘troops have learned to sip, not guzzle’ – but it is still the case that, as one US pilot put it, ‘we’re going to burn a lot of gas to drop a lot of gas’.  According to some estimates it can cost up to $400 a gallon to deliver fuel by air. [ix] 

Neither war nor strategy are a hard science like physics. That said, there are fields of study and investigation that while not being a science are, like physics, inherently about systems or systemic relationships. Economics  and engineering are two such examples, strategy is another.  Because of this similarity, it is often profitable to employ metaphors or analogies from physics to illustrate strategic problems, as Clausewitz famously did in On War with “friction” and “center of gravity“.

Diffusion” might be another analogy for statesmen and soldiers to keep in mind.

Military force, or more broadly, national power marshaled and employed toward a vital objective represents a potent concentration of energy like a red hot iron bar. Thrust deeply into a trough of ice water, the surface of the water yields to the mass and heat of the iron bar in a furious burst of steam and boiling turbulence. Keep the bar submerged and every erg of heat will be sapped out of it by the water and the iron will emerge cold, tempered by the experience and inert. Keep the bar submerged long enough and the water will begin to rust the iron away until nothing is left.

Vast spaces, hostile populaces and deeply impoverished environments are like ice water to the molten heat of an invading power, as we have discovered in Afghanistan.

There are already old military maxims that express a warning about the risks of diffusion, notably “Don’t get into a land war in Asia” or “Don’t invade Russia in winter”.  Napoleon Bonaparte marched his vast and fabled Grand Armee of 600,000 men into the endless steppes of Tsar Alexander’s Russia. Everything gave way before Napoleon’s legions, but the Russians were not the Austrians or Prussians, they retreated, savagely burning and destroying as they went:

….Alexander’s proclamation to his people, issued at the time of the French invasion, appealed to these deep seated feelings: Napoleon had come to destroy Russia; the entire nation must rise against ‘this Moloch’ and his ‘legions of slaves’. ‘Let us drive this plague of locusts out! Let us carry the Cross in our hearts and steel in our hands!’ The proclamation was read in all the churches, and the priests supplemented it with embellishments of their own. The Comte de Segur, at this time an aide-de-camp to Napoleon, wrote: ‘They convinced these peasants we were a legion of devils commanded by the Antichrist, infernal spirits, horrible to look upon, and whose very touch defiled”

In Moscow, the city in flames, even Napoleon the Conqueror, the master of Europe, did not have enough men, or material or speed of movement to either digest and rule the immense spaces of Russia or compel Alexander to come to terms:

….Throughout the fall of 1812, Napoleon waited in vain for Alexander’s peace proposals to arrive in the Kremlin. When none came, he made overtures of his own, but Alexander sent no reply. As the days stretched into weeks, Napoleon came to see that he, not Alexander, faced a truly desperate situation, for Russia’s armies grew stronger by the day while his own dwindled from desertions and the ravages of disease. He faced the hopeless prospect of wintering in Russia without adequate food, shelter, or supplies, surrounded by a people so hostile that they burned their grain rather than sell it for French gold. As winter approached, and as the Russian partisans stepped up their attacks on his rear, Napoleon saw that his line of communications, which relied upon a perilously vulnerable corps of couriers who raced from Paris to Moscow in fourteen days, must soon collapse.

Of the Grand Armee, only five thousand returned home from the snowy wastes of Russia alive.

The Wehrmacht did little better. Hitler’s imagined drive to the Urals without a surrender and territorial concession by Stalin was a fantastical ambition. The far-flung distance, roadless mud and icy snow alone were too much for panzer armies and Luftwaffe air wings that proceeded to break down with statistical certainty. Supply lines were too long; gasoline and replacement parts were too few, as were replacements for the men for whom the Eastern Front was a grave. To the dogged resistance of the Red Army, the Germans needlessly added the people’s rage of the Russian partisans by demonstrating to the peasantry that the NKVD held no monopoly on atrocity.  Imperial Japan’s coterminous war in China tells exactly the same unhappy tale.

William Lind and the 4GW school used to like to make the point, regarding your moral and political legitimacy, that ” If you fight the weak, you become weak”. The corollary to that is economic: “If you fight the poor, you become poor”.

Grinding poverty itself  is a tax upon the invading force. There are no resources for your army to comandeer or buy, no skilled manpower to requisition or hire, no infrastructure for them to use. All of that must be imported and built at great expense by the invader whose troops are accustomed to far less spartan environs. The local population is usually malnourished, illiterate, ignorant, suspicious of outsiders and  rife with disease; their living habits and water sources unsanitary and endanger the troops. Caring for the locals, even minimal administration of humanitarian aid, becomes a bureaucratic and logistical burden consuming time and diverting resources away from urgent military needs.

The United States under George Bush the Elder, entered into Somalia, a land beset by violent anarchy and it’s people in the grip of a terrible famine and was driven out shortly thereafter under Bill Clinton. The last scenes there being the emaciated Somali followers of  a two-bit warlord,Mohammed Farah Aidid, gleefully swarming over and looting our military’s former…. garbage dump.

When the enemy has a land so poor that he treasures and makes use of the crap you throw away, the economic spillover of your logistical supply lines will fund his war against you. Used to surviving on bare subsistence, the invader’s presence becomes an economic bonanza for resistance and collaborator alike. Sort of a highly kinetic form of military Keynesianism. The war itself and the occupation become an irreplaceable cornerstone of their economy. They hate you being there, but can’t afford to defeat you and drive you out either – making a “quagmire” irregular conflict their ideal economic equilibrium to maintain.

What lessons can we draw here?

  • Keep your national power concentrated – don’t diffuse it with unmanageable, ill-defined, tasks of unlimited scope
  • Military power is to be used for a clear and articulated policy end with a defined political settlement in mind
  • If a political settlement is impossible because the problem is intractable, avoid involvement.
  • If you cannot avoid getting involved (i.e. -you were attacked) your best option is to engage in a punitive expedition to destroy the war-making capacity of the enemy and impose  ruinous costs and then immediately leave.
  • Keep campaigns short. In operation, military power is a terrible, swift sword and you should sheathe it just as quickly. 
  • Ruling over enemy population is a wasteful, thankless, burden not to be undertaken except in extremis (Reconstruction and occupation of Germany and Japan were in extremis cases).
  • Maximum gains accrue from the most effective use of the smallest possible force in the shortest period of time.
  • Make an army large enough and the enemy will become a secondary or tertiary concern of its leaders.


22 Responses to “Strategy, Power and Diffusion”

  1. Duncan Kinder Says:

    Zorro said it best:
    “Get in, make your Z, and get out.” — Zorro, from the short-run sitcom, Zorro and Son.

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    “Keep your national power concentrated – don’t diffuse it with unmanageable, ill-defined, tasks of unlimited scope”

    After reading your bullet points I can only say, Zen, you damn hippie. If the US followed your strategy we would never fight another war, because you have made the military useless 🙂

    Zorro wore a mask, because he was fighting a protracted war. Duncan was only describing tactics, not strategy.

    Zorro was Mao, not a red-hot iron bar. Mao centralized power in one man such as Zorro, but didn’t concentrate it. He diffused the power with unmanageable, ill-defined, tasks of unlimited scope that would one day sell 2 dollar refrigerators to the Americans.

    According to reports from China, Zorro is still at it. 

  3. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Nice post.  I write you from that wretched country you speak of…Afghanistan.
    Of course all of what you write ignores the circumstances of the grand strategic decision that led is here in 2001.  That’s fine, because then came an inflection point of sorts, when the Democrats in the US had to make good on fighting the “good war” in Afghanstian.  So they were committed to a war they didn’t want, except in a grand game of chicken against the American right.  In their electoral wins, they lost that game of chicken, and had to fight some Afghan rabble who, some of whom literally think that we’re Russians returning to attempt to reconquer Afghanistan.  And their sole purpose in playing that game of chicken with the right was to prove that they’re smart on foreign policy and that they’re not afraid of a good war every now and then–as though lives and treasure aren’t even on the line.
    So the real question is to get the American political machinery to obey some basic precepts of strategic good sense.  Grand strategy, inertly, is simple.  It becomes complicated when we twist it for what passes for domestic politics these days.  At any rate, with the Benghazi boondoggle/disinformation campaign playing out, I question whether getting our political “betters” to abide by any strategic rule set is even possible.
    So much for the hubris of the “reality-based” community.

  4. IustitiaAntePacem Says:

    “If you cannot avoid getting involved (i.e. -you were attacked) your best option is to engage in a punitive expedition to destroy the war-making capacity of the enemy and impose  ruinous costs and then immediately leave.”

    Michael Sheuer makes this point very well in his book, “Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq”

  5. zen Says:

    Zorro had the advantage of a secret identity but I am not sure he ever made refrigerators in Shaqnghai or accepted market-relations. He seems to be more an effective Don Quixote legacy type who is in on the joke, the Adam West of swordsmen
     Much thanks Captain Nate. I think you outlined the dilemma cynically, but accurately. I used to think the DC policy class suffered from incompetence; I’m starting to believe that the real problem is the prevalence of pathological narcissism among them as a defining cultural characteristic. 

  6. zen Says:

    Scheuer was playing with that idea very early on but he was proposing something then closer to laying waste to the whole Arab-Muslim world 

  7. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Incidentally, I like how you’re prescriptions for the use of military force are the exact opposite of those prescribed by Thomas PM Barnett.
    I think what you wrote basically spells “Leviathan.”  Can’t say I disagree.
    So much for SysAdmin.

  8. morgan Says:

    Amen, Nate.

  9. Madhu Says:

    It’s not just the military that is becoming less effective via diffusion:
    Aid shouldn’t be militarized, development and democracy promotion don’t go together, and economic developmental aid is a spectacular decades long failure.
    Humanitarian and medical aid is different and shouldn’t be lumped into the developmental stuff, because it works but you can’t see it when it’s lumped in.
    The State Department should not be worrying about economic development. It’s not the Chamber of Commerce.
    The Whole-of-Government approach is exactly wrong – each institution needs to go back to core disciplines and be more evenly funded with funding better vetted and audited.
    It’s all diffusion all the time for all the various national apparti…. 

  10. Madhu Says:

    And, of course, it’s easy to pontificate. “In the Arena” and “To Be” and all that are very different that pontificating. I do know that, even if it doesn’t always show.

  11. Madhu Says:

    Post that kinda address the above:
    Also, look up “Aid as Religion” and every single thing written by William Easterly, or, Pundita.

  12. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi NTL,
    Well said, sir!  

  13. Scott Says:

    When we first went in, I bought into the nation-building paradigm.  After reading Pressfield’s “Afghan Campaign” (Granted, it’s fiction, but still) and David Loyn’s “In Afghanistan” I realized there was no way we could “win” in Afghanistan.  At best, we could maybe arrange a temporary truce between the factions, that would dissolve after we left.  Nothing that has happened since I read those books has change my mind.  This is a great post, Mark.  It should be read more widely than just the milblogs.

  14. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Mark:
    I’ve posted my own response — off-topic as usual — as a separate post, The Sufism of Zen.

  15. carl Says:

    Mark:  Oh, I don’t know.  There is nothing in those bullet points that can be really argued against.  But they are mostly truisms ‘Maintain your weapon at all times so it will work when you need it because you never know when you will need it.’ types of things.
    As all of it seems to relate to Afghanistan, I would mostly supplant them with one thing-Recognize that the primary enemy is the Pak Army/ISI, and further recognize they are the thing we should primarily focus on then have the moxie to do it.  Of course its too late for us.  India will have to do it now.

  16. zen Says:

    Hi Nate,
    ” Incidentally, I like how you’re prescriptions for the use of military force are the exact opposite of those prescribed by Thomas PM Barnett.”
    Fair point, that is correct.
    Tom IMHO worked up his thesis with Cebrowski in the pre-Iraq years with the late 90’s MOOTW/OOTW/”stability operations” a la Bosnia and the US in a different economic position as his mental starting point. Power is relative to your potential and scenarios like Bosnia (or a Grenada or a Haiti or Panama etc.) were very small, very marginal. We will always be able to handle marginal tasks – even the impoverished early 20th C. military handled small wars on a shoestring when they were allowed a free hand by Washington.
    Iraq was not a small scale war and turning Iraq into a full-blown western democracy was an even larger task that Rumsfeld had not anticipated, then discouraged (wisely) then passive-aggressively mismanaged (unwisely) when he lost that call to Cheney-Wolfowitz etc. So much was poorly handed at the policy levels there to be many times worse than it needed to have been it obscures the strategic evaluation of the decision to occupy Iraq at all (vice just deposing Saddam) in terms of ROI as being questionable even under best case terms. 
    Would Tom revise his views now? I don’t know, I have not asked him. I think the reality that we have badly squandered our resources in Iraq and AfPak and, in unrelated ways, royally screwed up our political economy at home in the past decade makes the need to think about strategy with frugality an inarguable reality.
    Madhu is right that diffusion applies to more than just military realms of action and I share Carl’s view of the ISI . Gracias Scott!

  17. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Interesting take on Barnett.  Whether he worked up his thesis pre-OIF or while OIF was going on is immaterial.  Bottom line, he’s a guy who exercises an extreme form of confirmation bias.  When OIF kicked off, he says he supported it.  Now that OIF and OEF are less fashionable, I think it’s interesting how little we hear of each conflict on his personal weblog.  It’s as if those two wars, which he supported, don’t even exist.
    Incidentally, the time period that TPMB uses to support his Globalization grand strategy is precisely the time the US was acting without a grand strategy.  Recall that the whole PNM gimmick was to take every military operation conducted in the post-Cold War years, plot them on a world man, and connect the dots.  Where we were engaged (without a grand strategy) should be where we should be engaged in the future–and hence the “shrink the gap” thesis.  This is not just steering by your wake–it’s also a massive piece of confirmation bias.  Then we start a war in Iraq, and, again, more confirmation bias.
    At any rate, my guess is that he wouldn’t revise his thesis.  He would change the facts that he uses to support his thesis.  That’s what Great Powers is all about–trying to take his inherently militaristic grand strategy and put an economic spin on it.  Facts have to fit the narrative, you see.
    Apologies for hijacking this thread into an anti-PNM discussion.  I just think it’s very interesting how we’ve come full circle back to Weinberger doctrines that were so unfashionable about 7 years ago.
    I concur with your thoughts on screwed up political economy.  That political economy issue is, incidentally, the same issue that many empires have to deal with–that far from the imperial capitals dictating policy, the periphery begins to do so, and in ways that don’t make sense to the metropole.  Just ask the French fighting at Dien Bien Phu.  Or Algeria.  Or the Brits fighting the 13 Colonies.  Or the Russians fighting in Afghanistan.  The list goes on…

  18. Madhu Says:

    “Incidentally, the time period that TPMB uses to support his Globalization grand strategy is precisely the time the US was acting without a grand strategy.  Recall that the whole PNM gimmick was to take every military operation conducted in the post-Cold War years, plot them on a world man, and connect the dots.  Where we were engaged (without a grand strategy) should be where we should be engaged in the future–and hence the “shrink the gap” thesis.  This is not just steering by your wake–it’s also a massive piece of confirmation bias.  Then we start a war in Iraq, and, again, more confirmation bias.”
    @ Nathaniel T. Lauterbach
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this comment because I stuggle with the topic of consultants, think tank scholarship, academic advisors, and son, within the context of foreign policy and doctrine generation.
    If you read Small Wars Journal circa 2006-2008, you will find a very interesting intellectual “feeling one’s way” with regard to “FM 3-24”-type topics. Post Soviet collapse, right and left, hawk and dove (to use American terminology) developed certain theories about the world that failed spectacularly on contact. This is life, this is human nature. No consolation to anyone in the military, but I guess there is only trial-and-error in this life. (It would help if the feedback loops allowed trial-and-error to correct ways but the feedback loops seem busted to me….)
    Anyway, the above is MY long running theory of the decision-making foreign policy class and its purported “horse-whisperers”. The stories told, the studies written, the way in which it all came together, somehow played out in the most dysfunctional way possible.
    So, how am I to think about this? I don’t know. Sometimes I become very nit-picky and focus on people like Dr. Andrew Exum, sometimes I focus on NATO and the British, sometimes I focus on American and British South Asian academics and analysts. who knows what whim will catch my fancy? But, in the end, maybe it had to happen this way because the behavior of that class became out-of-control in the era of our Cold War triumph.
    I also wonder why Gen. James Mattis’ role in FM 3-24 draws so much less interest than prominent Army Generals? No grandstanding compared to others and a genuine fighting military career? I don’t think the original thinking was so terrible and I can understand the need to retrench intellectually in the midst of the Iraq madness. The stories we (Americans and Western Europeans) have told ourselves about the Cold War periphery countries, which now are a focus rather than peripheral, were simply not up to the task because they were a mix of wishful thinking, influence agent generated excuse-making and money-grubbing, and simple old ignorance.
    Again, a theory. We shall see, I suppose. 
    How to be fair and decent and understanding, and yet to allow nothing to be swept under the rug? 

  19. Madhu Says:

    “And son” should be so on but that’s an interesting typo, even for me….Paging Charles Cameron, paging Charles!

  20. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Yes, I understand the “feeling one’s way” toward 3-24.  FM 3-24 was a product of its time at a very specific point in the Iraq insurgency, and it deserves context.  That’s fine, in that COIN is a very tactical action, and cannot be extrapolated toward grand strategy any more than an poison gas attack in World War I can be.
    I’m much more critical of the Grand Strategy put forth by TPMB, who seems to take every fashionable trend and claim that it’s a part of shrinking the gap, frontier integration, system administration, etc.  If you take out the glitter and confetti, you’re left with a hulk of imperialism-lite while happily forgetting the human, financial, and moral costs of the whole enterprise.  There is nothing new here, people.

  21. Madhu Says:

    I’m critical of both.
    On the Grand Strategy, I has similar thoughts. I wrote on SWJ:
    “Okay, fair points.
    But–honest question here–what is the difference between Thomas Barnett’s core-seam-gap and post WWII theories of the developed and developing nations?
    I mean, you could put some of his writing up against McNamara (who went on to be World Bank president, I’m sure you know) and it looks exactly the same?
    CORDS and SysAdmin and Pacification and all that. What is the difference, and why would it work across time and distance, if it worked at all?
    Where is the deep study of a particular strategic environment before picking the optimum theory with which to engage a part of the world?
    I have genuine confusion on this, so, I’m not saying I know. I get confused.” 
    But by confusion, I really meant “why don’t these new theories seem new to me? There’s no “there” there.”
    I also started the following thread which made the same points:
    I see both Barnett’s theory and the development of doctrine (FM 3-24) as reflections of thinking that comes out of the post World War 2 milieu of American academia and policy making.
    I really see nothing new, even with supposed discussions of a new world environment. It’s all the same thinking, and perhaps imperial-lite is a good term for it too. 

  22. Madhu Says:

    One more in addition to my comment awaiting moderation:
    It seems to me that not only is Thomas Barnett’s core-seam-gap theory simply modernization and development theory dressed up for the 90s post Cold War environment and expanded into 2000s WOT, but that it may well fit into the themes Peter Munson may be exploring in his book (which I’ve not read but is on my ordering list. I’m just guessing):
    “American foreign policy since World War II has actively sought to reshape bothdomestic and international orders, hoping to hasten the coming of the “end of history”in a peaceful democratic utopia. While the end of the Cold War heightened optimism thatthis goal was near, American foreign policymakers still face dramatic challenges. In War,
    Welfare & Democracy
    , Peter Munson argues that the problems we face today stem fromcommon roots—the modern state system’s struggle to cope with the pressures of marketdevelopment and sociopolitical modernization. ”
    Again, Nathaniel, I agree with what you’ve written. 
    Watching Indian modernization from afar, and, as a child of its immigrant diaspora, I feel like it’s never anything new under the sun in terms of the West wishing to develop other parts of the world. I understand the impulse, the levels of poverty shock. But I’ve also seen how attempts to modernize are always disruptive. I don’t understand how this is continually wished away.

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