Culminating point

December 2009


I was in the car last night when the President spoke at West Point. Mrs. Salamander was driving, so I had the pleasure of a focus on words you can only get with a radio in the dark.

I stewed.

When I got home after a few hours, I managed to pound out a post at my home blog – and hoped that with the morning I would get a fresher view on things. Notsomuch.

USNIBlog has a slightly different flavor of readership, so what I would like to do is revise and extend my remarks from last night. First things first; fundamentals. We should use the correct terms.

The Army’s FM-3; Operations provides the following definition,

*culminating point
(Army) That point in time and space at which a force no longer possesses the capability to continue its current form of operations.

I think the longer definition from the 2001 edition is better; lets look at that.

Culminating point has both operational and tactical relevance. In the offense, the culminating point is that point in time and space where the attacker’s effective combat power no longer exceeds the defender’s or the attacker’s momentum is no longer sustainable, or both. Beyond their culminating point, attackers risk counterattack and catastrophic defeat and continue the offense only at great peril. Defending forces reach their culminating point when they can no longer defend successfully or counterattack to restore the cohesion of the defense. The defensive culminating point marks that instant at which the defender must withdraw to preserve the force. Commanders tailor their information requirements to anticipate culmination early enough to either avoid it or, if avoiding it is not possible, place the force in the strongest possible posture.

Keep that in mind as we go forward. What we saw last night was the Culminating Point politically in AFG. The military side, numbers wise, will come later. It is the political that is the most important though. In the modern nation state, it has always been. Our enemies know that even if many on our side do not.

Last night’s speech needs to be read in detail, even if you listened to it. Our enemies are – so should you.

In the build up to the CINC’s speech at West Point, I have to admit I was being an optimist. In my head, I decided that I had a rough idea what was coming, and as a result was going to title this post, “Give the CINC some room to work.” I wanted to support my President. Take 3/4 of the package and push on.

I have a buy-in in AFG – I want us to succeed, victory if you will. With strategic patience, and going with what we know works – this is doable – doable with the right military and political leadership.

Our military leadership at the in-theater operational and strategic level is good and sound. Our COIN built around Shape-Clear-Hold-Build is sound. As in all war though, you need the political to be at the same level of dedication and desire. That is the CINC. That is why this speech was so important. We were at an inflection point – we needed a home run or at least a double. What we had instead was our #4 hitter in the line-up standing at the plate hoping for a walk.

He lost me at 20:18. I’ll explain.

There are three parts to his strategy (it is unquestionably his now); a military surge – a civilian surge – and a “Pakistan” surge. The civilian surge cannot produce desired effects in AFG without the safe and secure environment created by military forces. They simply will not go where it is not safe. Correctly.

A stable Pakistan, in terms and in line with our security needs, cannot exist without a safe and secure AFG. An unstable AFG will lead to an unstable PAK – a goal BTW of a fair percentage of the Pakistan population. For the civilian and Pakistan part of his plan – the military must be given the resources and time to bring stability in AFG. In the broad sense, it is at least a decade away when you can get a cohort of young adults who are literate. At least 51% literate. Without that critical mass, you will not have any chance for stability. That is at least a decade away. To get there you need strategic patience and will.

Back to his speech. Here is how the President put it.

We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.

That is when I looked over to Mrs. Salamander and said, “I hope I just didn’t hear a timeline.”

The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010, the fastest possible pace, so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

What you have here is the continuation of the plan that has been in the works since mid-08 and extended by a few more brigades – the McChrystal expansion of the McKiernan uplift. Good – but that previous paragraph was still echoing in my head.

Start sucking your teeth now.

Because this is an international effort, I’ve asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we’re confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead.

Where are they coming from? Jones-Craddock tried and failed. McNeill-McKiernan tried and failed. Will Stavridis-McChrystal succeed now that we are telling everyone that we intend to leave come h311 or high water? There is no blood left in the NATO turnip.

Here is what we do know. In a year from now, the Canadians and the Dutch (together ~3,500 relatively caveat-free forces) are leaving AFG. This has been known for awhile. The French stated earlier that they will send no more. The Brits can throw a few hundred in the south – but they are already looking at the door. You could double the Spanish, Italian, or German numbers if you want – but due to their ROE/Caveats, they will have little effect. That isn’t going to happen.

Former Warsaw Pact NATO economies are under so much stress and their militaries so small – they aren’t going to give you thousands. Turks? Please.

I hope that the CINC has some surprises in his back pocket – really he as to. If we do not see allied contributions in the high four to low five-figures in the next, “days and weeks” – then do I really need to tell you what that means tactically, operationally, or strategically? If he does have them, then just wow, that would be highly impressive.

From an INFO OPS and STRATCOM POV, I just cannot see the CINC saying the above without firm commitments that will be made public in the timeframe he outlined. If they are not coming, then we have one thing; train wreck. This is varsity football, you can’t say things like that unless they happen. This is not domestic politics. There is significant additional national strategic risk if we add to an announced withdraw plan, an public refusal for our allies to produce more troops.

Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. And now we must come together to end this war successfully. For what’s at stake is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility; what’s at stake is the security of our allies and the common security of the world.

Now, taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.

This was at approx 20:18 according to the clock in my car. I am glad Mrs. Salamander was driving. My head fell into my hands, literally. I didn’t yell or pound the dashboard.

Now, everyone put on your red hat … or red turban, if you will.

18 months is a fortnight at best for the Taliban, a weekend really. They will wait us out. The AFG government, just like the AFG government after the Soviet withdrawal, will hold on for awhile after we leave – but it is all baked in the cake if we stick to the 18-months.

Right now every smart AFG that can is transferring money and making plans to get out. Calls and emails are going to family in the USA, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, The UK – wherever they have a connection – making a Plan B if they haven’t already because they were foolish enough to believe in the USA.

The Afghans have seen this movie before; they know how it ends.

By moving from a conditions based (or effects based depending on planning school you come from) plan to a time based plan, we just solved the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s problem.

We just validated all that has been said about the West. The weak horse is at full wobbl’n canter for all to see.

We’ll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

They can’t do it in 18 months if they know we are leaving them. They know their history better than we do. They know what happened when the Soviets left. They know they are one vote in the US Congress away from losing financial and military support, just as the South Vietnamese were in ’75.

The extreme minority from the military side of the house think the Afghans will be ready in 18 months. I want them to come forward and tell everyone how 18-months will work. I would like to hear them say it to. Not the, “I will carry out the orders …. ” mantra – but a not kidding, “Yes, this is outstanding!” true believer stuff. I am serious – because the vast majority do not.

If the Afghans knew we were there for the long haul, would they be on the readiness curve to be ready once conditions were set? Sure, but not in 18-months. We just threw away a chance to do this right. You can’t force this and expect it to work. This isn’t politics – this is the building of a military and civil infrastructure that did not exist before.

By putting an 18-month stamp on things, we just stated that we don’t care about the conditions on the ground or if we have desirable or undesirable effects – we are just looking at the countdown. Last one out of Bagram is a rotten egg kind of thinking.

Success, victory – whatever you want to call it – is never achieved on a chronological basis. You retreat on a timetable – you succeed by reaching decisive conditions, objectives, effects, and end states as defined by your mission. Military 101. This isn’t the result of the “best military advice.” Timelines without conditions is madness.

Second, we will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy so that the government can take advantage of improved security. This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over.

President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.

We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas such as agriculture that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.

None of that can be done in a nation larger than Germany in 18-months. Just talk to our Agricultural Development Teams in the east of AFG. They just started two years ago, and are only now impacting a few districts. It takes time to do this right.

Now, the people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They’ve been confronted with occupation by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al-Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes.

So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand: America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect, to isolate those who destroy, to strengthen those who build, to hasten the day when our troops will leave, and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner and never your patron.

The AFG didn’t hear a word of that. All they heard was,

“…transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”

Everything else is background noise.

Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan. We’re in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. And that’s why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

That is/was what we have been doing as a nation. It will all be for nothing if we abandon AFG.

I am not going to fisk the entire speech, read it yourself if you missed it, but there is one more quote I want to cover.

He had three explanations in his speech. The first two were aimed at the political Left in this country who either want to retreat now – or do nothing. The third was aimed at, I believe, those who are seeped in a few thousand years of military best practices. Here it is.

Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.

Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

No one in a uniform has counseled an “open-ended escalation.” No one. No, there are just those who are trying to achieve the mission in AFG. The only way to do that is through the proven methods of defining your mission, your end state, your objectives, your decisive points (or conditions or effects – depending on your flavor), your tasks and then the troops you need to achieve them.

There is no “time.” If you are given a time limit – then you plan for that and work backwards. Usually though, the planning goes like this – “When the following conditions are met, we can transition to the next phase …. ” With time-based plans, all that matters is the time. You know that – the enemy knows that.

If your enemy does not have a chronological restraint, then to achieve their decisive points, objectives, end states and mission – then all they need to do is hit the mattresses and wait you out.

If your enemy sees your Strategic Center of Gravity as the political will to continue – then when you set a conditions-free chronological end to your campaign; you just advertised that your Center of Gravity has been compromised and is falling apart.

The President in the end of his speech wanders into a discussion of costs. OK, we can do that. There is another thing that has stood true for thousands of years – war is always less expensive than defeat. Ask the Khwarezm Shahs, the Confederates, the Germans, the Soviets, the Baathists, well … you get the idea.

Here is a question I have for our 4-Stars:

Where in the history of warfare has a time-based strategy worked? When has it ever been determined to be a superior plan for success/victory/mission than a conditions based or effects based plan? Conventional warfare or COIN, when?

So, for the pro-victory coalition – what is there in this speech?

Well, hope isn’t a plan – but there is hope.

This was a political speech, not a military speech. In politics there is nuance and the truth can change. We must hope for the truth to change. We can hope that “transition” is fudged enough to allow the Commander on the ground to have enough troops for a long enough time to build and expand the Afghan security forces. If transition is has a nice slow slope – then this could work – but indications are this isn’t what we are looking at – and the atmospherics is horrible.

Maybe the decision will be made to not start the withdraw in 18-months until conditions are better – but indications are this isn’t what we are looking at either. Hope, maybe – but it is what it is.

As leaders, there is nothing illegal in the CINC’s orders, so you execute them as best as you can, and hope. You can push hard for 18-months with the hope that the largely Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, and the other parts of the Afghan National Security Forces can significantly up their game to the point that when the American resources start to draw down – that the Afghans can keep it going from there. Hope that the drawdown will be manageable and that the financial and material support continues so the Afghan government isn’t abandoned like we abandoned the South Vietnamese in ’75.

That is, of course, if you think that the hope has a chance to succeed – hope has a bad track record in this line of work. What do you do if you are faced with the situation that you can no longer plan to win – instead you have to plan an orderly withdraw?

From a moral position – if your mission is strictly chronologically based – what is the risk level you take with the lives of your men and women between now and the point you head for the Friendship Bridge? For what purpose are you expending lives? What are you “buying” with them?

Ahhh, that pesky thing called the operational art. A Decision Point. How do you define the conditions where further expenditure of resources will not bring about a sustainable desired effect inside an artificial timeline – and as a result when do you decide to pull back to the cantonment?

Tough nut. It would be great to be able to talk to John C. Pemberton about it.

History. How will she read this speech? How will history judge the uniformed leadership? More tough nuts to ponder.

It doesn’t have to end this way – but if you surrender to a time-based plan – history says it does.

If it does – it will be the fault of the elected leaders we have – though they will, like they did in Vietnam, falsely blame the military – but we know that. Right?

Posted by CDRSalamander in Army

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  • Mike M.

    Unfortunately too true. All of it.

    From the perspective of Grand Strategy, we’re in a Very Bad Situation.

    The Afghanistan Campaign is not merely about Afghanistan. It’s about Pakistan…and the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. If we disengage before the Taliban and their allies are obliterated, it is very possible that they will use safe areas in Afghanistan to mount a successful insurgency in Pakistan, and get control of nuclear weapons.

    In which event a general war is inevitable. The United States, Israel, and India all would have excellent reason to mount a preemptive strike to destroy the Pakistani nuclear capability…before Delhi, Tel Aviv, and Washington all become radioactive memories.

    You will kindly note that Obama mentioned nothing of this last night. Which is a pity.

    Because there is another factor in play. The Three-Year Limit. The American electorate has NEVER been willing to support a war for much more than thirty-six months of fighting. In the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq…support wavers after three years. IF the electorate sees victory in sight, they will see things through…and if not, the electorate will see the current political leadership out of a job.

    We have been in Afghanistan eight years already. The Iraq camapign outshone Afghanistan, but with that winding down, public attention will shift to Afghanistan. We’re fighting already…and even if public attention is fresh and the buttons reset, I doubt that we can win a counterinsurgency campaign in the maximum of three years of fighting that the public will support.

    Mentioning the pot stakes might be able to keep public support up.

    As things stand, we’re facing the worst of all possible worlds.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. (Depending on what your definition of “any” is.)

    “To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required… (Or until 2011, whichever comes first.)

    “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out… (For eighteen months, at least.)

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Twice in a lifetime. Alas, Babylon.

    Our credibility to allies? My guess is gone in an instant.

    Words once said, are permanent and their effects can echo for generations, for good or ill.

    My guess is to the detriment of all.

  • RickWilmes

    I think it is correct that the title of this blog post is Culminating point, and we should focus on fundamentals, definitions and that this was a political speech.
    What was the essence of the speech? 
    The United States will be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  The question that needs to be answered is why?
    Well, what is Afghanistan?
    According to the CIA Fact Book the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a particular form of government adopted by some Muslim states; although such a state is, in theory, a theocracy, it remains a republic, but its laws are required to be compatible with the laws of Islam. Its legal system is based on mixed civil and Sharia law.
    I am instantly reminded of John Adams’, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.”  Incidentally this dissertation is where John Adams’ writes, “Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”  He argues that canon and feudal law are the “two greatest systems of tyranny.”  John Adams and our Founding Fathers knew of the importance of the separation of the church from the state. 
     So why are we sending another 30,000 troops to an Islamic theocracy?
    According to Gen. McChrystal,the architect behind the plan, says, “This is not a war for profit, it’s not a war for conquest, and it’s not a war for glory.  Its a war to give people a chance.”
    McChrystal: Strengthening Afghan forces ‘most important thing we do’
    Well, Mr. President and Gen. McChrystal, there are enough Americans that know the importance of separating the church from the state and that giving the Afghanistan people a chance to make their Islamic theocracy stronger is going to be a fundamental disaster.

  • RickWilmes
  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    CDRSalamander raises some good points. One of them is that this was a political speech. I agree with that assessment. This is of course fine for the president to do, but is the U.S. Military Academy the right place to do that? I think not.

  • JV

    I agree with the CDR, but offer this: we argued against the same idea of a timeline with Iraq, until the GoI forced our hand with the status of forces agreement. While we are maintaining many forces there, it seems that the Iraqis have stood up and are taking care of business. We complained that the Iraqis wouldn’t take on responsibility for themselves, until the SoF forced us into the backseat. Now we complain about not having the influence we once had, ie, doing whatever we wanted to do there with or without the GoI’s permission. I don’t pretend to know what will happen once we fully pull chocks, but isn’t this what we want to happen in AFG? For their government to accept responsibility and take the lead? I know the difference here is that we are forcing it on them rather than vice versa, but would like to hear comments on this issue.

  • RickWilmes

    JV your questions focus on the root problem of why our foreign policy is a failure and ‘bringing democracy to our enemies does not work.’. By allowing the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to ‘vote’ and take over ‘responsibility’ for their country we legitimize and put into power people and philosophies that do not agree with or promote the United States interests.  

    For further discussion on this aspect of the issue, I recommend


    ‘The “forward strategy of freedom”—Bush’s misleading name for his crusade to bring elections to the Middle East—lived up to the name we give it in the book: the forward strategy of failure. It served only to empower our enemies—the Islamists—by granting them legitimacy and political control, for example, in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. ‘

  • Jay

    RADM B — It was the perfect place for the speech — directly to the cadets who soon enough will be the leaders on the ground there.

    CDR S — Perhaps you didn’t want to put any emphasis on this line — “Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” — but I think it deserves far more than it got. Understand it doesn’t square with your agenda.

  • RickWilmes

    Here is an example of why we should not be making the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stronger and why the egalitarian approach to giving people a chance is doomed to fail.


    ‘A woman under Islamic law cannot get a divorce,” she said. “However, men can divorce his wife verbally under Islamic law . . . Wife killing is a phenomenon in Muslim countries.”

    Women must have four male witnesses to prove rape, Darwish said. And women have to be virgins when they marry or they are killed.

    “She has committed adultery unless there are four male witnesses,” she said. “Women are in prison for sexual violations.”

    Darwish also discussed the rights of non-Muslims in Islamic countries.

    “Under Islamic law, Jews and Christians can live in an Islamic country only if they live as inferior, pay taxes and give money to the Muslim state,” she said.

    Darwish said she believes these laws are the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    “The root of the conflict is seventh-century laws that are still practiced today, and no one wants to end these laws,” she said. “It’s still on books and taken seriously.” ‘