Bin Laden, COIN, and the absurdity of war without escalation

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Recently, concerns have arisen about retaliatory attacks by al-Qaeda stemming from the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. 

This concern stems from the current small-wars counterinsurgency (COIN) meme; that by killing one enemy, you create 20 more.  However, this idea should by no means be considered a maxim.  Essentially, recent COIN methodology hoped for war without escalation, something that Clausewitz found to be absurd.  Clausewitz states that almost all wars must escalate:

“War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force.  Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes…To introduce the theory of moderation into the theory of war itself would always lead to logical absurdity.”[1]

But we know there is a limit to that escalation, otherwise history would have known only one war and it would have consumed all of humanity.  The question is always: What is the enemy’s breaking point? 

To illustrate the necessity of escalation in war, let’s picture two men arm wrestling.  As the match begins, one man—let’s call him Joe–thinks he is much stronger than the other (Steve) and doesn’t wish to humiliate or hurt his opponent, but does want to win, so Joe exerts only a percentage of his maximal possible force.  But suddenly Joe realizes that Steve is stronger than Joe expected, that his opponent actually seems to be giving it his all and doesn’t seem at all to care if Joe loses face in the masculine battle.  Joe cranks up the force, feeling a bit stupid at underestimating his opponent.  Steve senses Joe’s increased intensity, and he, too, leans into the match, his face turning a darkening red.  Now Joe again applies more pressure, and for once he sees Steve’s arm begin to move toward the table.  Steve is still giving it his all—his will is not yet broken—but he simply doesn’t have the power necessary to bring Joe’s arm down.  Finally, Joe senses victory and gives it everything he’s got.  As Steve’s wrist moves to within an inch of the table, Steve sees that defeat is inevitable and that further resistance will only bring pain.  Steve’s arm goes limp and Joe wins. 

Consider the above analogy with no escalation.  Both men would sit at the table forever.  The parallels to war are obvious.  Some may say that it is desirable that neither side escalate.  This is only the case if the war is not a shooting war, otherwise the killing would continue albeit at a slower rate, but for a much longer time.  At some point, one side’s will is sure to waiver.  It is highly unlikely that neither man in the arm wrestling match would choose not to escalate his use of power.  If neither man wanted to win an arm wrestling match, why did they take part in the first place?

The fallacy is that a war can be won without escalation.  If there is no escalation, it is not a war; it’s an intellectual debate. 

Yes, killing one man may indeed create 20 enemies.  This doesn’t mean the one man should not be killed.  Killing him would only be a mistake if analysis showed the enemy capable of out-escalating the killer.  There are a number of factors that dictate the level to which an enemy can escalate and many of them are not directly related to military strength.  In any case, no nation or enemy can escalate ad infinitum. To worry that al-Qaeda can escalate forever and always grossly overestimates their power and the constant media messaging hinting as al-Qaeda’s plots for revenge provide the terror group with moral courage.  It’s been said that America can’t kill an idea.  That’s true, but also moot.  America needs only make the actual practice of harmful ideas more painful than mere thoughts.  The COIN argument that killing one enemy makes 20 also shows itself to be overblown when we think about the effect of al-Qaeda and the Taliban killing one of our service people; do 20 more American soldiers magically sprout on the battlefield?  After enough deaths in a fight, do some Americans not begin to ask: Is it worth fighting on?  Losing soldiers has a real effect on our will and combat effectiveness.  It is the same with our enemies.

Of course, escalation need not take place at all costs.  There comes a time when the negative results of escalation outweigh anything that can be gained from it. That, too, is the same for our enemies.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) learned the cost of its Total Terror campaign and it also underestimated the ability and will of America to escalate.  AQI poisoned the sea in which it swam by killing too many Iraqi civilians and then America destroyed the insurgency by killing a lot of terrorists.  The violence in Iraq dropped dramatically. 

Will al-Qaeda plan revenge attacks for bin Laden’s death? Probably.  Would al-Qaeda have attacked the United States or other Western nations if bin Laden remained alive? Absolutely.  But in the end, al-Qaeda, like Japan at Pearl Harbor, banked on a knockout blow that it simply didn’t have the power to deliver.  Both escalated without giving thought to America’s ability to match and surpass her enemies’ violence.  To fret reprisal and hold back America’s power just as al-Qaeda strands ready for collapse will only empower terrorists and allow those almost dead to regenerate, to mock their betters in a war they know they can’t win without our help.

[1] Clausewitz, On War, Pg. 76.


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