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  • Writer's pictureMichael Shurkin

Loose Change No. 12: American Strategic Narcissism

France's General André Beaufre, perhaps that country's best strategic thinker of the past century, defined strategy as the "art of the dialectic of wills employing force to resolve their conflict." His definition contains something that seems obvious yet tragically, at least in my experience, has been absent from American strategic thinking especially in Afghanistan: the idea that the enemy has a will, and it acts. It will have a strategy. Rather, American thinking has been consistently solipsistic. There was little discussion of the enemy's strategy and how to counter it. Debates almost always have been about us. This has been notably true in the past few weeks as we've struggled to digest events in Afghanistan: Where did we go wrong? What could we have done better? What were our mistakes? Rarely has anyone had much to say about what the Taliban have been doing right these past 20 years. Beaufre himself laid out some basic tips for a kind of strategic analysis that I can't recall hearing among Americans regarding defeating the Taliban. He suggested identifying one's own weak points and strong points as well as those of the enemy. How might the enemy seek to exploit our weaknesses? He placed tremendous emphasis on the critical role of liberty of action. The adversary will seek to limit our liberty of action; we will have to preserve our own while limiting the enemy's. The side that limits the other's liberty of action the most is the side that wins. How does one do that? By forcing us to use helicopters. Or to stay behind Hesco barriers. Or to keep to roads. Or to stay off roads. Or to limit the application of firepower for fear of civilian casualties. Thus the enemy shelters among civilians, or across the border in a county we dare not penetrate. Beaufre also noted that in asymmetrical conflicts insurgents often embrace the strategy of the "lassitude maneuver." In other words, the weak side strives to survive long enough for the stronger party to tire out and decide it's had enough. The weak side, therefore, avoids battle. The strong side would be wise to do the same. More importantly, the strong side needs to hold on and to do that it has to organize itself to sustain the conflict as long as possible. It is a test of will. I simply do not recall any honest discussion of Taliban strategy, of what we needed to do to counter it. How do we hold on while tiring out the Taliban? And if this was not possible, where was the frank discussion of what then? Beaufre also wrote about the need for a total strategy that involved the whole of government acting in multiple domains. How exactly was this done in Afghanistan?

No foe is mad enough to take on the United States military in open battle. They'll think of something else. That's what the Taliban did, who by the way did not apply a strategy significantly different from what the Vietnamese Communists did. Yet somehow we are surprised by the outcome.

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