Archive for March, 2008

New Question

On the last post, Ireland & England, Kludge left a comment asking this question, “How did, say, the british house of lords, the monarcy, and parliment work together?”  A very good question and one I intend to answer in the next week or so.  Check back and send me nasty emails if I haven’t gotten to it after a while.

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I suppose its fitting that on St. Patrick’s Day I should happen to be reading in the history book for my War and Diplomacy class about the English oppression of the Irish.  My European history is a bit rusty, so it was interesting to be reminded that at the same time the English were establishing a stronger parliamentary rule for themselves in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, they were doing precisely the opposite to their island dwelling neighbors.  Though Ireland had a Parliament of its own, the English managed to strip it of any real authority with the “penal codes.”  The majority of the Irish had remained Catholic after the Reformation and England’s move to Protestantism.  Fearing Catholic and French intrigues against it that may emanate from the Emerald Isle, England established, through the use of Anglo-Irish landholders who controlled most of the property in Ireland, the Anglican church as the official state church, forbade Catholics from holding jobs as teachers, constables, or attorneys, and imposed restrictions on just about every form of trade that would have proved useful.  Catholics could not vote for Parliament (the Irish version) until 1793, but even then couldn’t themselves be elected.  So its no wonder that Ireland today, particularly Northern Ireland which is still part of the United Kingdom, is about the only place left in the world where different sects of Christianity still occasionally clash violently.

England most likely viewed their treatment of the Irish in the late 17th and early 18th century as a strategic measure to protect themselves, and in many ways it was, but it is also an example of how shortsighted political expediency can lead to long-term battles, political and real.  Compared with most of Europe, and even the world, at the time, England’s parliamentary system and the restraints it imposed on its monarchs were vastly more liberal (in the classical sense) and enlightened than anybody else’s, even if it did heavily rely on and favor the aristocracy.  Look hard enough–and in most cases you don’t have to look very hard at all–and you’ll see that every nation or people is guilty of some crime against a neighbor.

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180px-clausewitz.jpg     VS.     sun_tzu.jpg 

This was orignially an essay written for my War and Diplomacy class. 

When one thinks of war and of those who fight it, many names may come to mind.  Patton, Rommel, Montgomery, Zhukov would certainly be mentioned in any conversation about World War II.  Certainly Napoleon and Frederick the Great would be spoken of from wars of an earlier time.  The list of notable warriors from history would be endless.  But more than any two individuals, the words of Karl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu in their works On War and The Art of War, respectively, have influenced the study of the conduct of wars.  While these two men, separated in history by over two thousand years, are both thoroughly studied and praised for their council on war fighting, and, indeed, share many ideas, that does not mean that they are in total agreement.  Their theories do diverge in certain areas.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between the two is in their separate means in reaching the end of victory.  Sun Tzu advocates that the best way to achieve victory is to do so without fighting at all.  He declares, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”  The thwarting of the enemy through the defeating of his strategy before the fighting actually begins, and separating him from his allies is the best course of action.  The preferred methods for success in these matters would be the use of diplomacy, propaganda, and secret agents.  By undermining the enemy’s plans and allies in this way, the need for actual battle became unnecessary for victory.  Clausewitz would disagree.  One of the key, if not the most integral, of Clausewitz’s concepts was that of the center of gravity; the attacking of the enemy’s army, capitol, or ally.  Essentially whatever it is that is the main hub of his power.  Clausewitz said that the enemy’s center of gravity is “the point which all our energies should be directed.”  He also stated that only “by daring all to win all, will one really defeat the enemy.”  Michael Howard has noted that Clausewitz may have, when asked, insisted that work of diplomacy and spying was better left to the political leaders, not military.  But it is surprising he would not give more credence to these ideas like Sun Tzu did, especially since he clearly realized the close relationship between politics and war.  So in contrast to Sun Tzu’s idea of winning the victory without a fight, Clausewitz stresses the fight as the key to success.

Another diverging area of these two war theorists is the notion of the predictability of war.  Through Sun Tzu’s words one can make the assumption that he saw war as a rather predictable event.  He goes as far to say that if a commander is able to follow his instructions, “I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated.”  Even from an expert whose counsel has endured for centuries, this is a bold claim!  Clausewitz saw things very differently.  Having been a soldier since his early teens, he no doubt knew firsthand the confusion of the battlefield.  A commander may have the best laid plans, but the “fog” of the battlefield can “prevent the enemy from being seen in time, a gun from firing when it should, a report from reaching the commanding officer.”  There are uncontrollable factors that render plans, often times, mostly useless.

A third difference of opinion between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz is the goal when engaging the enemy army.  As we have seen, Sun Tzu praised victory without fighting as “the acme of skill.”  It stands to reason then that he would also favor the taking of an enemy army intact.  This is done, as we have seen, most successfully by not having to fight to achieve victory.  In this way, Sun Tzu says, “your troops will not be worn out and your gains will be complete.”  In Clausewitz’s mind, the goal of the engagement was to destroy the enemy’s army.  As we’ve seen already, “by daring all to win all” is the only way to have total victory.

Despite these differences, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz do have much in common.  Both put a premium on the importance of morale, both for the commander armies and the home front.  They understood that giving the men a reason to fight, and keep on fighting is critical.  They also would agree that in the best cases wars should be short.  Sun Tzu says that, “there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”  This idea is directly related to that of morale.  The longer the fight, the more it taxed not only the fighting man, but the home front as well, as more conscripts would be needed and more taxes levied to pay for them.  Clausewitz recognized the importance and expressed it by saying, to paraphrase, a good general can give the orders, but the soldier must have the wherewithal to follow them.

A third area in which they would agree is the idea of strength.  Not just strength in the general sense, but specifically at the decisive point.  As Sun Tzu stated, “Thus a victorious army is as a hundredweight balanced against a grain.”  Essentially, it is a pre-Powell doctrine of overwhelming force.  This is echoed in Clausewitz when he claims, “The best strategy is always to be very strong.”

Choosing between these two is difficult because they both have strengths and weaknesses.  If pinned down to make a decision, which I am, I would probably agree more with Clausewitz mainly because of his recognition of the friction that occurs on the battlefield.  Though Sun Tzu’s words of, “a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle” are crucial to successful war planning, Clausewitz’s practicality ultimately wins out.

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sa.jpgOn the morning of February 15th, 1989, after a war of unexpected length and surprising brutality, the last soldier of the Soviet Red Army, its commanding general Boris Gromov, crossed the bridge at Termez out of Afghanistan and back home to the U.S.S.R., thus ending the ruinous conflict.  When Soviet troops first crossed the treacherous frontier a decade before they hardly could have predicted—nor could have anyone in the world for that matter—the difficulty they would face in pacifying a seemingly backward and primitive people and that they would ultimately fail.  But perhaps they should have suspected the problems they would encounter.  The 1979 invasion was hardly the world’s largest country’s first Afghan adventure.  Throughout much of the 19th century, Russia and Great Britain sparred in the region and produced a number of dustups and intrigues, during a period commonly known as The Great Game.  While Russia did gain some territory from these episodes, they managed to escape the era without any major blights on their military record, unlike the British who suffered major reversals in two Anglo-Afghan wars.  Perhaps, though they saw the failures of the British excursions, having not experienced them firsthand lead them to a false confidence.  Or perhaps by the late 20th century they became empowered by their vast technological advantage and in that put their ultimate trust to give them victory.  It would not have been the first time a superpower made that mistake.  But all of this begs the question, why invade in the first place, regardless of the supposed advantages?  What was there to gain from the conquest of essentially a primitive central Asian backwater?  The answer can be found, like many answers when discussing the Cold War era, in the preservation and expansion of an ideology.  In an attempt to further proselytize the world masses to the doctrine of Communism and compete in the world influence market with the United States and the West by propping up a failing communist regime, the Soviet Union launched a war that would become one of the leading factors in its ultimate demise.

Afghanistan had, for most of its existence as a nation, been in constant turmoil.  However, for a forty year period, beginning in 1933, a period of relative stability was achieved under the reign of King Zahir Shah.  Twenty years into these peaceful days, a relationship with the Soviet government was forged.  The Afghan Prime Minister, Mohammoud Daoud, intended to bring his country’s army into the twentieth century.  To that end he requested military aid from the United States.  However, the “U.S. rejected [his] request and Daoud turned to the Soviet Union for military aid” (The Origins of the Soviet-Afghan War).  Hereafter, the Soviet Union would continue attempts to expand its influence over Afghanistan.  Daoud was deposed in 1963 but, according to Robert Morris, was later able to “overthrow the venal monarchy of King Zahir Shah” (A19) and declare Afghanistan a republic.  Though he accepted Soviet military aid to modernize the Afghan army and many of the officers he relied on during the coup had been trained in the Soviet Union, Daoud also began making overtures to other Muslim nations on trade, including those with close ties to the United States like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and through a number of  purges, began eliminate more leftist members of the government.  A country study published by the U.S. government has stated that while “loosening of ties with the Soviet Union was gradual” his move toward “the right and realignment made the Soviets anxious.”  It also made their Afghan clients upset.  In April 1978 troops loyal to Afghan communists—as well as non-communist elements that disliked Daoud—staged a coup.  Morris has reported that “a leftist commander launched his jet fighters [from Bagram airport] with withering effect on Daoud’s presidential palace” (A19).  Daoud was killed in his own palace and a new government under Nur Muhammad Taraki of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was established.

The coup did little to increase stability in the country.  Within the PDPA there were divisions, not to mention the obvious conflict between a government with an atheistic communist ideology and a fervently Muslim population.  Within the fractioned PDPA the Soviets had favored the continued rule of Taraki, however his deputy Prime Minister and rival Hafizullah Amin conspired against him, had him murdered, and seized power in September of 1979.  Upon doing so, Amin tried, as the U.S. country study states, “to moderate what many Afghans viewed as an anti-Islam regime.”  His efforts however were in vain and the echoes of rebellion were in the air.  Even before Taraki’s death, “the Afghan government repeatedly requested the introduction of Soviet forces in Afghanistan” (“Soviet war in Afghanistan”).  In December of that year Soviet troops stormed the frontier and parachuted into Kabul.

According to the United States government sponsored study of Afghanistan, “The Soviet Union [was] always interested in establishing a cordon sanitaire of subservient or neutral states on its frontiers [and] was increasingly alarmed at the unstable, unpredictable situation on its southern border.”  It goes on to say that, “Perhaps as important, the Brezhnev doctrine declared that the Soviet Union had a ‘right’ to come to the assistance of an endangered fellow socialist country.”  Also, the influence of the United States can not be understated.  Initially it was believed that U.S. involvement did not begin until after the invasion, but in 1998 in an interview with French periodical Le Nouvel Observateur, former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski said:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention (76).


Also, it has been noted by Steven Coll that Amin had met with U.S. diplomat J. Bruce Amstutz at least five times in 1979 and while the “discussions were stilted and unproductive” (48) they still aroused concern with the Soviets.  It has also been seen in declassified top secret Soviet documents that the Politburo was concerned about American intervention in the country.  In a top secret report by Soviet ministers from December 1979 it was worried that “efforts were made to mend relations with America as a part of the ‘more balanced foreign policy strategy’ adopted by H. Amin” (160).

In its attempt to avoid the loss of a pliable client state, even one with little strategic significance, apparently for no other reason than to keep it from becoming too friendly with its rival ideologically, the U.S.S.R. made a critical blunder.  They underestimated the resolve of not only Afghanistan’s inhabitants but also the resolve of those willing to keep it from falling under Soviet control.  Over the course of the war, the Afghan mujahadeen would receive support from the United States as well as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and even the communist Chinese.  Ironically, the fight to preserve an ideology in that seemingly inconsequential country eventually lead to that ideology’s collapse in the country where it had originally germinated and bloomed over seventy years before.


 Works Cited


Blood, Peter, ed.  Daoud’s Republic, July 1973-April 1978 & Communism, Rebellion, and Soviet Intervention.  Afghanistan:  A Country Study.  Washington:  Government Printing Office for the Library of Congress.  2001.  http://countrystudies.us/afghanistan/28.htm & http://countrystudies.us/afghanistan/29.htm.


Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen.” Le Nouvel Observateur 15 Jan.1998:  76


Coll, Steven. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.


“Documents on the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.”  Cold War International History Project.  Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Nov. 2001:  160.   http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/e-dossier_4.pdf.


Morris, Roger.  “Afghanistan:  another ill-fated attempt?”  The Globe and Mail 1 March 2007:  A19.


“Soviet war in Afghanistan.”  Wikipedia.  6 Jan. 2008    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_war_in_Afghanistan.


“The origins of the soviet-afghan war.”  Alternative Insight.  1 Nov. 2001.  http://www.alternativeinsight.com/Afghan_War.html.


 “Documents on the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.”  Cold War International History Project.  Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Nov. 2001:  160.   http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/e-dossier_4.pdf.

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