Center of Gravity and Asymmetric Conflict: Factoring in Culture

By Jandora, John W. | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Center of Gravity and Asymmetric Conflict: Factoring in Culture


Jandora, John W., Joint Force Quarterly


This essay addresses asymmetric conflict in its current manifestation, which has come to be called jihadism. It accepts that the concept of center of gravity is applicable to such conflict, as has been argued by many study projects at the U.S. Army War College. (1) These studies, however, do not extend to the resistance struggle in Iraq. Even in their treatment of al Qaeda, they disagree as to what constitutes its center of gravity and reflect questionable assumptions about Islamist militancy. Departing from the conventional systemic approach, the present study focuses on contrast of culture to tie together loose strings and add clarity to the dynamic of jihadism.

To begin with, center of gravity in the context of asymmetry has no correlation with the disposition, maneuverability, or sustainability of a field force or to the capacity of states to mobilize assets of manpower and materiel. Nonetheless, the term remains applicable, particularly as used by Antulio Echevarria. In his treatise on "Clausewitz's Center of Gravity," Echevarria reinterprets Clausewitz's words as advice to look first for unity of effort and then "for connections among the various parts of an adversary, or adversaries, in order to determine what holds them together," as if by centripetal force. "Centers of gravity are focal points that serve to hold a combatant's entire system or structure together and that draw power from a variety of sources and provide it with purpose and direction." (2)

The term asymmetric warfare similarly deserves clarification. The base concept of a weaker adversary using unconventional means, stratagems, or niche capabilities to overcome a stronger power remains pertinent. However, the original hypotheses of rogue states launching chemical, biological, and radiological attacks or millennialist terrorists wreaking havoc in the United States have been supplanted by the realities of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban/al Qaeda aggression in Afghanistan, and the Sunni resistance in Iraq. The common denominator of these realities is the legitimizing of hostile action through the tenet of jihad--the Islamic imperative of fighting infidels to regain independence of action on the micro level or to bring social justice and ultimately salvation to mankind on the macro level. Thus, asymmetric conflict has become associated with jihadism. As any complex word-symbol, jihad lends itself to various interpretations, including who may rightfully invoke it and how it may be conducted. Such considerations notwithstanding, jihadism is the hallmark of America's current opponents.

Given this delimitation of asymmetric conflict, jihadism manifests itself to the U.S. military as an array of relatively small-scale, low-level attacks by tribal militias, armed brotherhoods (Sufi militias), factional/party militias, outlaw gangs, and militant cells. This phenomenon is very different from the long-held image of companies or battalions deployed "as two up and one back"--doctrinal, spatially structured combat by state-organized forces. It does not, however, defy analysis of force generation and sustainment. Hence, this essay seeks to expose and explain the centripetal (in-drawing) force that binds the disparate elements in their asymmetric approaches to jihad. The process results in finding centers of gravity.

Tribes and Clients

Two countervailing social forces shape the jihadist community, tribalism and clientelism. Both are outside the experience of most Americans. Both terms generally evoke disdain, albeit for quite different reasons. (3) Tribalism, as a derivative of tribe, is problematic because many scholars contend that the base term lacks specificity and therefore analytic usefulness. Clientelism, on the other hand, evokes images of the old-time, party-linked patronage politics of America's big cities, which the school of political correctness sees as deserving avoidance if not censure. Disdain notwithstanding, anyone who has lived beyond the Western enclave in most of the Islamic world knows such terms are indispensable. …

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