- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

The “culminating point” is a period in war when the advantage shifts from one side to the other and the outcome becomes irreversible. At the culminating point the potential loser can only weaken and the victor can only gain strength. After culminating the only issue remaining is how much longer the war will last and what the butcher’s bill will be.

Battles usually define the culminating point. After the high tide at Gettysburg the South was doomed. The Kaiser knew that the Michel Offensive in 1918 made any further offensives impossible. Many bloody battles would follow Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad but these events sealed the fate of the Axis powers in World War II. The Tet offensive in Vietnam proved that in American wars the culminating point is determined as much by psychology and will as loss on the battlefield.

Wars usually culminate before either antagonist is aware of the event. Lincoln’s melancholy dampened his confidence in victory until his reelection and the invasion of the South by Grant and Sherman in late 1864. The ghost of Frederick the Great kept Hitler irrepressibly confident of victory until the Russians were at the gates of Berlin. Tet and the Chicago riots convinced LBJ to surrender long before military defeat was even a remote possibility.

The war in Iraq is culminating now. As in past wars it’s just too soon to perceive the event with great clarity or certainty. The war will last beyond 2006 to be sure. But by next fall the outcome will not likely be in doubt. The question remains: How will it end? Which side will have the advantage after the culminating tide begins to recede? I appreciate the complexity of this war and the difficulties inherent in trying to forecast the outcome of a conflict in an alien region fought principally between contending sides that have very little in common with our culture and values. But we deserve some subjective means for determining who is going to come out on the upside of the culminating point. During the course of 2006 follow a few key events as they unfold and you might be able to answer that question for yourselves.

Security, security, security: Elections are wonderful events but right now the Iraqis value security far more than political freedom. To the Iraqi man in the street the legitimacy of the government now taking shape will not be gauged by its human-rights record or its ability to please the United States but by its ability to lessen horror on the streets. So watch the numbers. Relative violence has begun to recede across the country. You will know if the war has culminated in our favor if this trend accelerates.

Watch what happens in Baghdad: Capitals are often military centers of gravity. What happened on the streets of Paris often determined the fate of France. So too for Berlin, Cairo and Saigon. A key indicator of success will be how effectively the Iraqi security forces control Baghdad. Right now about half the city has been entrusted to them. The war has likely culminated in our favor if by the end of 2006 the Iraqis take over responsibility for protecting the capital.

Who controls the ratlines? The internal Baghdad insurgency is fed from outside along the ancient smuggling routes that parallel the Tigris and Euphrates. This fall the Coalition did an impressive job constricting the flow of insurgents and their supplies from outside. Watch closely to see if the Iraqi military can transform a temporary constriction to a stranglehold.

Watch the police: The lesson of counterinsurgencies in Malaya, El Salvador and the Philippines tells us that the key indicator of a shift in advantage during an insurgency occurs when responsibility for action shifts from the military to the police. The war will likely culminate successfully when a trusted and effective police establishment assumes primacy for securing Iraqi cities. If the Iraqi government can take firm charge and correct police shortcomings, then the Iraqi government will be up to the task of supporting and winning over the long term.

Pay attention to perceptions at home: Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century philosopher of war, reminds us that the purpose of war is not to kill but to dominate the will of the enemy. Radical Islamists base their war-winning strategy on creating popular despondency at home and a desire for withdrawal even if the military dimension has culminated successfully.

If the American people believe this war is not worth the cost then the war is lost. It’s as simple as that. So watch the polls very carefully. If support at home for immediate and unconditional withdrawal accelerates with mounting deaths, then the culminating point has been reached and not in our favor.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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