Posted by: Roncevert | April 20, 2010

Chance, Afghanistan, and Coup d’oeil

With the airspace over the transatlantic finally opening after the disruptive eruption of Iceland’s volcano, Eyjafallajokull, one has to question whether the U.S. and EU contemplated this force majeure (act of God) when concluding the landmark Open Skies agreement in 2007 that liberalized the U.S.-EU aviation market.  We are reminded that life is often contingent upon chance.   According to Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz, of all life’s activities none is more impacted by chance than war (the action of which is “wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser doubt.”)

Carl von Clausewitz

When  dictating his observations on war against the backdrop of the Napoleonic era Clausewitz devoted an entire chapter to the necessity of “genius” in a commander.  Genius is demonstrated by temperament and intelligence leading to exceptional achievement.  Military genius, in particular, is tested by the uncertainty of chance inherent to war and requires the elements of (1) coup d’oeil and (2) determination.  Coup d’oeil translates in French to “glimmer” and in this context refers to an intellect, that even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light, which leads to truth.  Determination means the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead. Clausewitz explained that the rush of events in war tests a commander’s strength of character – his temperament and intelligence – and only a commander that remains determined, steadfastly holding to his coup d’oeil, can become a military genius.

Clausewitz also drew an important distinction between such strength of character and obstinacy, which he described as a “fault of temperament” and “special type of egotism” that reveals itself when a person resists another point of view not from superior insight or principle, but because he objects instinctively.  We have seen enough obstinacy in the White House this past decade to last a lifetime.  I submit that in Afghanistan, the just war, we face a different test.

President Obama’s glimmer of light in Afghanistan, perceived at the beginning of his first term, will be tested.  Prior to the election, Gen. David H. Petraeus, leader of the “surge” in Iraq and an author of the new U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, was elevated to commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) signaling the growing importance of COIN in Afghanistan.  Two months after taking office, President Obama affirmed this policy shift by ordering nearly a 50% increase in U.S. force presence – 21,000 more troops – to support COIN operations in Afghanistan and calling for a civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in the region.  Following a three-month policy review, President Obama announced on December 1, 2009 a new surge of 30,000 U.S. forces beginning in 2010.

In sum, nearly a decade after September 11th and the swift defeat of the Taliban regime, the United States is finally taking seriously the cumbersome process of confronting an insurgency, famously described by T.E. Lawrence as akin to “learning to eat soup with a knife.”

Despite this renewed focus, or potentially because of it,  Taliban insurgent attacks have recently increased.  The New York Times reports:  “As American and NATO troops prepare for a summer offensive in Kandahar — what could be their most critical push in more than eight years of war — any sense of safety in the area is being worn away by assassinations, bombings and other attacks on American and Western contractors, political officials and religious leaders.”  Furthermore, the surge in troop presence has seemingly resulted in increased controversy over civilian deaths near military convoys and at checkpoints.   A NATO convoy in eastern Afghanistan shot to death four unarmed civilians in a vehicle early Monday evening, including a police officer and a 12-year-old student, Afghan officials said.

Even before the approach of summer,  prior to the awakening of the Hemland River from a wintry slumber in the Hindu Kush Mountains, currents of strife in U.S. policy materialized.  Most notably, following a contested election and rebuff by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in 2009, President Hamid Karzai launched a series of anti-Western speeches in March attacking foreign interference in his government – even during President Obama’s trip to the country.   The Washington Post reports that Karzai was angered that Obama pushed for anti-corruption measures instead of publicly supporting Karzai’s reconciliation efforts.  President Obama recently moved to mend fences with President Hamid Karzai, sending him a letter reaffirming their close ties and reiterating an invitation to visit Washington in May.

Clausewitz forecasts such difficulty in war and notes that the “proud spirit’s firm will dominates the art of war as an obelisk dominates the town square on which all roads converge.”  He observed that military engagements exist in both time and space; therefore, sound strategy requires the proper evaluation of both. Sheri Berman writes in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2010) that the U.S. should learn from the nation-building tactics of Louis XIV and the development of France’s ancien régime for guidance.  Perhaps.  We should take note of the lengthy time period (1643-1715) Louis XIV needed to expand his armed forces, legal authority, and bureaucracy to control the loosely affiliated provinces of France.

Thus, even as the U.S. Congressional elections, 24-hour news cycle, and chance of war demand otherwise, President Obama should steadfastly hold onto his coup d’oeil – his COIN strategy in Afghanistan – and have the  determination to see it through.

I recall the great West Virginia Hemlock trees that rise on the banks of the Middle Fork River, sometimes precariously clinging to sandstone boulders on the water’s edge.  As a sapling, the Hemlock plants its roots on the rocky crevice and prepares for the rapids of winter and droughts of summer.  Challenging the stone face would be futile.  To survive, its roots must adapt to the rocky terrain, finding between jagged cracks an earthen base to nourish its growth.  As the Hemlock develops, the roots and rock become one, a tree loyal to its foundation and determined to live.



  1. Ronce has a timely reflection as new volcanic mountains are growing in Iceland and we fight in the massive mountains of central Asia. The most ancient mountains of Vandalia in the central Appalachian range have shown the wisdom and common sense to endure. A salute to Ronce.

  2. if Petraeus can’t successfully implement COIN i’m not sure who will…

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