When facing an adversary, the U.S. military always searches for what Carl von Clausewitz, the great 19th-century Prussian theorist of war, called the “center of gravity.” Clausewitz used the term to refer to the primary source of a combatant’s power and strength, which can take many forms, including control over a strategically valuable territory or key command-and-control center, like a capital city; or something more amorphous, like public support for the government or alliance cohesion. Today’s military strategists believe that the most effective way to defeat any enemy is to identify its center of gravity, and then destroy or control it.
While simple in theory, this can be devilishly difficult to do. As security scholar Lawrence Freedman noted, Western militaries often use the center of gravity concept to search for “the knockout blow, the limited but well-directed, and brilliantly executed, thrust that might take down the enemy’s forces without the bother of a prolonged and bloody campaign of attrition.” The idea is that if an enemy’s center of gravity is destroyed, the war is won. But in reality, as Freedman pointed out, “once some key element is removed, social organizations do not necessarily collapse. There may be a transformation, but this could be into something more robust and durable. Taking out the enemy regime, for example, may not result in something pliable and cooperative, but instead a new entity that is as unfriendly and less manageable.”
This is precisely what is happening now in the fight between the U.S.-led coalition and the so-called Islamic State. Since that organization distinguished itself from its competitors, particularly al-Qaida, by announcing a new “caliphate,” American strategists assumed that control of territory in Iraq and Syria was its center of gravity. By this logic, if the Islamic State was unable to create and administer a caliphate, it would be defeated.