Clausewitz Takes Down the Caliphate: The Center of Gravity in the Destruction of the State of the Islamic State
Michael J. Mooney
On June 29, 2014, the spokesman for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, proudly announced to the world that the “the sun of jihad has risen…the flag of the Islamic State…a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer,” now represented more than an arcane, ideological underground movement. “Our caliphate” he said, “has indeed returned with certainty.”
1,206 sunrises later, on October 17, 2017, another announcement was made to the world. However, this one was not from al-Adnani. The target of a coalition air strike, al-Adnani had been dead almost 14 months. Issued by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the message was simple: the city of Raqqah, Syria, had been liberated from the Islamic State (IS). The Commanding General, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) was more definitive with his words: “Today… Raqqa is free. The ISIS caliphate has crumbled. Their capital is lost.”
The concept of the “center of gravity” is described in U.S. joint doctrine as the “linchpin in the planning effort.” Within his magnum opus, On War, Carl von Clausewitz explicitly outlines the concept of a center of gravity, and provides his readers examples which to attack to achieve one’s desired political objective. This essay examines the military campaign plan designed to destroy the Islamic State caliphate through the lens of the Clausewitz’s center of gravity, and the declaration of the cities of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqah, Syria as center of gravity of the campaign.
Defining the Center of Gravity
There are many disagreements concerning the application and meaning of the center of gravity. A pernicious problem with the application of Clausewitz is that the nuances in the many translations of his work from the original German to English has resulted in differences concerning the interpretation of key concepts. Therefore, one’s stance on Clausewitz’s concepts rests in part on the translation referenced. The center of gravity is one such concept affected by this issue.
Using the most widely used English translation of On War, that by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Clausewitz explicitly outlines the concept of the center of gravity (“Schwerpunkt”) in Book VIII, Chapter IV of On War:
What the theorist has to say here is this: one must keep the dominant characteristic of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed…by constantly seeking out the center of his power, by daring all to win all, will one really defeat the enemy.
Based upon his level of analysis, Clausewitz proceeds to offer his audience a list of primarily operational centers of gravity to strike to achieve one’s policy objective. Most important for Clausewitz was the destruction of the enemy army. Next was the capture of the enemy’s capital city. Third in order of importance was the “delivery of an effective blow against his principal ally.” The final two centers of gravity, which involve “popular uprisings”, are the enemy’s leaders, and then finally, the “public opinion”.
However, to be clear, this by no means implies that the centers of gravity as listed by Clausewitz are a simple, prescriptive list of prioritized objectives to methodically check off a scorecard – and that doing so is a recipe for success. Clausewitz himself warned against such a use of mechanistic, highly prescriptive positive doctrines in the conduct of war. Looking at the theories of On War as a coherent whole rather than individual nuggets to be plucked from the work, Clausewitz scholar Dr. Christopher Bassford reminds readers that it is the interaction between belligerents which creates and changes “the hub of all power and movement.” In other words, the application of Clausewitz’s theory is highly context-specific:
“…as usual with Clausewitz, the correct identification of any center of gravity would have to be consistent with the character of the situation and appropriate to the political purposes of military operations. To seek for an all-purpose strategic prescription in Clausewitz’s discussion of the center of gravity will therefore lead to the usual frustration. The rigid prescription is simply not there.”
The example Bassford emphasizes – taken straight from the pages on On War – is that of two wrestlers grappling; of each one maneuvering, reacting, and struggling to pin the other. Just as the current position (and reaction of) the opponent dictates where one will aim the next attempt to ultimately pin them to the mat, the center of gravity in a military campaign can change as the enemy maneuvers (both in reaction to, and independent of) strikes delivered against their system. Based upon the context of the situation and policy objectives of the destruction of the caliphate within Iraq and Syria, the center of gravity was what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called “the parent tumor.”
Destroying the “Parent Tumor”
An examination of the Islamic State reveals that it is a symbiotic system comprised of three, ideologically linked components that draw mutual benefit from each other’s existence. These components - their self-declared caliphate within Iraq and Syria, multiple regional wilayats (provinces) and an international cloud of aspirants - threaten the international order in ways unique to each component. The most readily accessible and vulnerable to attack was the physical caliphate with Iraq and Syria.
The challenge of any national security or military strategist is to provide decision makers with an effective combination of means and ways to achieve the political objective at hand. In this instance, because of the multi-faceted nature of the problem which the Islamic State presented, it was fundamental to determine what element of the Islamic State caliphate was the “hub of all power and movement”.
Despite the unrealistic and lofty rhetorical demands by political leaders to “destroy” or “eradicate” the Islamic State writ large, the operational focus of the campaign to defeat the terrorist proto-state zeroed in on the self-declared caliphate within Iraq and Syria, specifically the cities of Mosul and Raqqah. This operational approach was stressed by Carter in January 2016 when he channeled his inner Clausewitz to precisely outline the “acceleration” of the Global Coalition campaign against the Islamic State. Using the analogy of the Islamic State being a cancer, Carter stated:
“Our military campaign accordingly focuses on three military objectives: One, destroy the ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centers in Mosul and Raqqah. Two, combat the emerging metastases of the ISIL tumor worldwide, and three, protect the homeland…ISIL has used control of these cities [Mosul and Iraq] and nearby territories as a power base from which to derive considerable financial resources, manpower, and ideological outreach. They constitute ISIL’s military, political, economic, and ideological centers of gravity. That is why our campaign plan’s map has got big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqah.”
Carter’s successor, current U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, reinforced this theme in a May 2017 interview where he too described an acceleration of the campaign:
“Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home…We are not going to allow them to do so. We are going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate…for example, in Western Mosul, that is surrounded, and the Iraqi security forces are moving against them. Tal Afar is now surrounded. We have got efforts under way right now to surround their self-declared caliphate capital of Raqqa. That surrounding operation is going on. And once surrounded, then we will go in and clean them out.”
Clausewitz’s language designating the enemy’s capital as a potential center of gravity strikes a similar tone as Carter and Mattis: “Seizure of his capital if it is not only the center of administration but also that of social, professional, and political activity.” Indeed, it was readily evident at the declaration of the caliphate on that June day in 2014 that Mosul and Raqqah held special importance to the Islamic State, and their occupation were essential to the terrorist group in the very ways described by Carter: militarily, politically, economically, and ideologically.
Militarily: The ability to physically possess and control Mosul and Raqqah reaped many tangible benefits for the Islamic State’s military operations. As seen in numerous Islamic State propaganda videos, the capture of Mosul resulted in the acquisition of significant amounts of military equipment and ammunition abandoned by the Iraqi Army, to include tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi openly stated that 2,300 U.S. made HMMWVs (“Humvees”) were captured by the Islamic State when Mosul fell. This equipment provided the muscle and firepower for the Islamic State to militarily control vast swathes of territory.
As a city of over two million people, Mosul provided a pool of manpower for the Islamic State to “co-opt and solicit recruits” from its population. Furthermore, both cities served as inspirational magnets for thousands of foreign fighters (discussed in greater detail below). Elsewhere in On War, Clausewitz presents the ideal-type notion that one’s ability to wage war is a factor of the means one has at hand times the will to achieve the political objective. Already possessing more than adequate will, the capture of Mosul provided a windfall of means.
Geography has always played a unique role in military campaigns, especially concerning logistics. Mosul and Raqqah were no different, as they are key hubs in the transportation network that continue to link the region together. The physical possession of key urban areas such as these provided the Islamic State with the ability to move fighters and supplies to active battlefronts, as well as move goods and material to support their ability to govern as a “state”.
Mosul's geography was of “significant strategic importance…[it is] less than 100 miles from Syria, giving the group a potentially strong foothold to control territory on both sides of the border.” Raqqah was especially important in this regard:
“Raqqah lies at the crossroads of four important geographic regions in Syria: the fertile Euphrates River valley and oil-rich Deir ez-Zor governorate running toward Iraq to the southeast, Syria’s Kurdish-majority al-Hasakah governorate to the northeast, Aleppo and its countryside to the west, and the Turkish border to the north. Raqqah’s location makes it key to controlling several critical highways running along these routes, which support the movement of people, goods, and materiel to support frontline combat operations.”
In regard to one of the Islamic State’s most deadly weapons, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the significance of these routes is further explained in a December 2017 report produced by the London-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR) titled Weapons of the Islamic State: A Three Year Investigation in Iraq and Syria:
“IS forces have relied on a steady stream of commercial products and explosive goods to construct unprecedented numbers of IEDs. Turkish territory is the main—although not exclusive—source of chemical explosive precursors (ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate, aluminum paste, and sorbitol), detonating cord, detonators, containers used to house IED main charges, and ancillary IED components employed by IS forces.”
Another CAR report, this one from December 2016, detailed weapons manufacturing by the Islamic State in east Mosul. Their investigation of captured weapon and ammunition factories found “production on an unprecedented scale…[and] that weapon manufacturing on such a scale is the result of an extremely robust procurement network…[via] a major supply network operated by IS forces, which extends across Syria into Turkey…”
Politically: Raqqah was the Islamic State’s “global nerve center,” and was of “massive strategic importance to ISIL, both as its symbolic capital and as the central node for ISIL’s command and control over its entire caliphate.” As its’ capital, the city was a stronghold for Islamic State leadership. Although the precise location of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is unknown, it is assessed that he ruled the caliphate from Raqqah (Baghdadi met “periodically” with his regional emirs at his headquarters in Raqqah) as well as spending time in Mosul. And it was within the safety of both Mosul and Raqqah, Islamic State bureaucracies were able to craft the strategic direction and governance of the caliphate.
Economically: One of the most widely reported economic benefits from The Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in 2014 was the group’s seizure of approximately $430 million from the Central Bank in Mosul. This sudden influx of currency into its’ coffers significantly enhanced the group’s initial ability to govern its captured territory, pay its’ fighters salaries, and surreptitiously purchase and smuggle materials for weapons and ammunition production within the caliphate. In fact, one of the Islamic State’s strengths was “its ability to secure large amounts of funding from primarily internal sources, its lack of reliance on international sources of funds, and its exploitation of ungoverned spaces and porous borders to move funds with impunity.”
The large population of the Mosul (approximately two million people) made it a very lucrative market for extortion and tolls from which the Islamic State could earn a steady, reliable income. In July 2014, “the Islamic State had an income of $8 million a month from extortion and tolls in Mosul alone, even before it took full control of the city. It was no doubt able to run 151 similar rackets in Raqqa, Syria, and the surrounding area.” The importance of the two cities is borne out by the fact that the central treasuries of the Islamic State (Bayt al-Mal) were located in Raqqah and Mosul.
It is also well documented that the revenue from oil sales was a major source of funding for the group. Not only did the Islamic State have oil fields in close proximity to Mosul, but being located on the Tigris River gave it access to water trade routes, as well as to pipelines that carry oil from Iraqi fields into Turkey. In Raqqah, bridges across the Euphrates connected the city “to some of Syria’s key oil production regions in the larger Raqqah governorate.”
Ideologically: This was the most important element Mosul and Raqqah contributed: tangible confirmation of the righteousness of Islamic State ideology come to life in the form of the caliphate. As described by Joby Warrick in 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, Black Flags, the caliphate was “the single big idea with which it [the Islamic State] could rally its depleted forces and draw other Muslims into the fold.”
The fall of Mosul, coupled with the occupation of Raqqah months prior, signaled to the Islamic State leadership that the time was right to declare the caliphate. Mosul by far was the group’s “most important strategic gain…and used the victory as a symbol to legitimize ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a global caliphate.” The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point observed that the Islamic State “was emboldened by the acquisition of Mosul and its momentum enabled it to acquire several areas that would link it to the eastern part of Syria through Hasaka and Deir al-Zur, thereby erasing the Sykes-Picot borders that separated Iraq from Syria.” And as widely broadcast, al-Baghdadi used Mosul as the location of his public announcement of the establishment of the caliphate and his assumption of the role of caliph.
In fact, every day that Mosul and Raqqah remained in Islamic State hands only served to feed the narrative of its invincibility and the impotence of the world to counter it. “Uniquely the Islamic State has explicitly developed its identity around a state-building enterprise through the declaration of the caliphate.” Although other groups – most notably al-Qaeda - had talked about the return of the caliphate, the Islamic State actually did it. In Raqqah, where the Islamic State “first consolidated control over an urban population” before moving on Mosul, the city was enthusiastically displayed to the world as “an exemplar of the group’s religious credibility and the overall prosperity available to those who want to join the caliphate.”
It was not a coincidence that Raqqah was declared the capital the 2014 caliphate; it previously was that of Abbasid caliphate from 796 to 809 AD. And it was in the present-day caliphate, that Raqqah was, “the purest example of the Islamic State’s experiment in jihadist government.” By tapping into “a wellspring of historical, philosophical and theological details,” the Islamic State offered potential followers “a more sophisticated rejection of the West than other jihadist groups, focused not only on “sinful” cultural elements, but also real, substantial alternatives. And thousands of people from all over the world responded.”
That is exactly what Mosul and Raqqah represented: real, substantial alternatives. The cities were tangible, irrefutable evidence of the caliphate’s return. Estimates are that tens of thousands of Muslims from at least 86 countries flocked to Syria and Iraq to participate in the promise of the caliphate, with the “search for belonging, purpose, adventure and friendship” being the main reasons for their joining the Islamic State. In his influential March 2015 article What ISIS Really Wants, author Graeme Wood recounts the declaration of an Islamic State supporter in Australia of “the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends” after the capture of Mosul and the declaration of the caliphate.
As the campaign to destroy the Islamic State caliphate commenced, the problem set initially confronting the CJTF-OIR and Global Coalition was so multi-faceted, and so immense in scale, locating and striking the most critical point in the enemy system was of prime importance. As he has done for generations of strategists, Clausewitz offered a solution to this conundrum – the “center of gravity.”
This essay has examined the concept of the center of gravity on the campaign against the Islamic State specifically using the Howard and Paret translation of On War. As pronounced by both U.S. Secretaries of Defense who have presided over the fight against the terrorist organization, the liberation of Mosul and Raqqah was an imperative. According to Carter, the Islamic State “used control of these cities [Mosul and Iraq] and nearby territories as a power base from which to derive considerable financial resources, manpower, and ideological outreach.” They were “ISIL’s military, political, economic, and ideological centers of gravity.” History is replete with examples of the potential consequences of the “seizure of his capital if it is not only the center of administration but also that of social, professional, and political activity;” witness the loss of Athens to Sparta in 404 B.C., Richmond to U.S. Grant in 1865, Paris to the Germans in 1871, and Berlin to the Allies in 1945 to name but a few.
“When you are in operations,” said Mattis, “the best thing you can do at the top level is get the strategy right...you have to get the big ideas right.” This echoes the thoughts of Clausewitz when he advised that, “…it is therefore a major act of strategic judgment to distinguish these centers of gravity in the enemy’s forces and to identify their spheres of effectiveness.” The designation of these cities as the center of gravity by Carter, and carried forward by Mattis – making it the “lynchpin” for planning” - recognized the fact that the impact of their liberation would echo throughout the entire Islamic State system. Mosul and Raqqah were, in the words of Clausewitz, the “hub of all power and movement” of the Islamic State caliphate. Combined, they were “safe havens and symbols of success” for the Islamic State, and their liberation has proven to be a sufficient condition in achieving the policy objective of shattering the physical state of the Islamic State – its’ self-declared caliphate.