Cumulative Strategies and Attrition

From Bing West:

Since September, the Third Platoon has shot somewhere between 125 and 208 Taliban—as many as one enemy killed per patrol. That rate may not seem high, but the cumulative effect has been crushing. Marine tactics, like Ohio State football, have the subtle inevitability of a steamroller. “We got a radio intercept yesterday,” Lt. Garcia said. “Some Talib leaders in Pakistan were chewing out the local fighters for quitting. The locals yelled back, ‘Marines run toward our bullets.'”

This an rather mundane example of a cumulative effect, albeit a highly tactical one. Attrition is stereotypically seen as a grinding contest to be absolutely avoided. Yet as a recent analysis indicated, attrition often has nonlinear effects that defy the (more cinematic than real) stereotypes of World War I’s Western front. The classic example is of a “death by a thousand cuts” in which a series of unrelated small actions build up to a cumulative strategic effect.

In guerrilla warfare, the United States tend to excel at tactical or operational attrition–grinding down organizations on the local level or in rare cases like the failed Tet offensive destroying enemy forces when they attempt a Phase III offensive. Debates over special operations vs. regular forces aside, the military has gotten better at targeting insurgent organizations than it has in the past, and it showed during the Iraq war’s latter phase.

But in out of area operations guerrillas often are better placed, on the strategic level, to carry out a strategy of erosion. This doesn’t mean the guerrillas themselves are strategic geniuses (Giaps and Maos are kind of rare) and obviously not really tactical gurus either.  But attrition is based on relative cost. The Soviet Union, contrary to popular belief, was not “defeated” in Afghanistan. It did, however, make a decision to cut its losses and pursue its interests through other, less costly, means (for which they were successful for a while).

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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