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The Art of War in Afghanistan:

November 19th, 2009
05:10 PM ET
Amanpour Intern, Vladimir Duthiers
Amanpour Intern, Vladimir Duthiers

By Vladimir Duthiers

“War is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death. A road to either safety or to ruin. Hence, it is a matter to be pondered carefully.”

One might think that the above quote came from a recent speech by U.S. President Barack Obama – eloquently providing the public with some insight into the grave deliberations he and his staff are going through concerning the recent developments in Afghanistan.

But you’d be off by 2500 years.

Turns out, it’s not an Obama sound bite but a passage by the 5th century BC Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, author of the oldest treatise on combat, The Art of War. Written sometime around 490 BC in the Kingdom of Wu, the text provides fascinating observations on military strategy and tactics that have been applied by armies for millennia. From the Carthaginian general Hannibal to French emperor Napoleon to the Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, all have exploited Sun Tzu’s principles to wage war and defeat opponents. Even Luiz Felipe Scolari, coach of the Brazilian national football team credited his 2002 World Cup victory over Germany to the strategies he learned from Sun Tzu.

My introduction to Sun Tzu came when I was 8-years-old. One balmy Saturday afternoon, I turned on the television set and found myself watching a thin but muscular young man fend off hundreds of opponents with a flurry of lightning quick punches and spinning roundhouse kicks. It was Bruce Lee, starring in the classic martial arts film Enter the Dragon.”

I was mesmerized. This wasn’t Batman or Superman, my heroes up until that moment, existing only on pulp and in the imagination of writers and artists. He was real. And when he wasn’t busy destroying his enemies, he said things and spoke in a way that I had never heard before. One example stayed with me for a long time. When Lee’s character is asked about his style of fighting, he responds, “You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.”

Fighting without fighting? How was that possible, I wondered.

As soon as the movie ended, I raced into the kitchen to find my mother and begged her to enroll me in a martial arts class. The following weekend I found myself bowing to a sensei for the first time, something that would happen on and off over the course of the next thirty years in my pursuit of mastering the art of fighting. Through my study of the martial arts and its principles, I began to understand where Lee’s philosophy sprang from as I devoured philosophical texts such as Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and The Art of War, where I finally learned the origin of the film quote. At the start of chapter three, Sun Tzu writes, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the height of skill.”

A deeper understanding of The Art of War would come during college. I joined the United States Army Reserve Officer Training Corps as an officer cadet and part of my military instruction came from studying Sun Tzu’s doctrine and learning how to apply it on the field of battle. The U.S. military had made some of his teachings part of the military science curriculum for years and many senior U.S. Army officers frequently quoted his teachings. In his biography, U.S. General Tommy Franks, who led the 2003 invasion of Iraq, called Sun Tzu, “The world’s most enduring strategic thinker.” Certainly, it has been required reading by soldiers, notably after the war in Vietnam and the revelation that General Giap used many of Sun Tzu’s tactics against the French Expeditionary Corps at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and later, against the U.S. It is taught in manuals from the United States Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute for senior officers, and his maxims are included in army training manuals meant to educate soldiers on army fundamentals.

It’s a thought-provoking concept given that 52% of the American public thinks the war in Afghanistan has turned into a situation like the one the U.S. faced in Vietnam, according to a CNN / Opinion Research Corporation Poll. But that same poll indicates that six in ten Americans say it is necessary to keep troops in Afghanistan in order to prevent terrorism in the U.S.

Yet the analogy with Vietnam is intriguing because with the increase in insurgent activity, rising death tolls for American troops and waning support at home for the war, it appears the Taliban, whether they know it or not, are taking a page or two out of Sun-Tzu’s manual.

So, has the U.S. lost its copy?

The strategy in Afghanistan and how to apply it has been the subject of intense debate between the U.S. president, his cabinet and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. This, after a recent report by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. He has requested a troop increase that could elevate the total number of coalition forces to 144,000 from the 104,000 boots already on the ground there. In his report, McChrystal says that there is an “urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate.”

In a recent webcast interview with counterinsurgency and counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen, Christiane asked him how long it would take U.S. and coalition forces to stand up the Afghan army and their police and security forces to a level sufficient for the U.S. to conclude military operations. “We are talking about two years of heavy military operations to really push the Taliban back and transition to Afghan control. So I say, two years of heavy military operations and another three years of transitions,” he said. Kilcullen, a former Australian soldier and top adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq, now advises General McChrystal on Afghanistan. Based on Kilcullen’s remarks, the United States can expect to be at war in Afghanistan until at least 2011. Will the American public and NATO stand for what is already one of the longest wars in modern U.S. history and one of the deadliest since WW II for Europe?

Sun Tzu would argue against it. In The Art of War he writes, “No nation has ever benefited from a protracted war.”

What of the guerilla-style tactics the Taliban has employed against coalition forces?

For instance, in July 2008, an intense firefight erupted in the Wanat region of eastern Afghanistan when coalition troops were surprised by insurgents. After the battle ended, nine American soldiers were dead and 27 coalition troops wounded.  Based on extensive analysis of the battle by the Department of the Army, recommendations were made to change the way coalition forces operate in the region, specifically, not to get caught up in battles in remote areas where the enemy can pick the time and place to attack. In response to Christiane’s question about where coalition forces should be fighting, Kilcullen said, “General McChrystal has done an extremely detailed assessment of what's required on the ground. And he's focusing on the right strategy, a population-centric strategy, not a terrain-centric strategy. A lot of these valleys - particularly up in Wanat, in Kunar, and up into Nuristan, where these last battles have happened, these valleys aren't very heavily populated, not a lot of people live there, and you can overextend and get into a situation where you bite off more than you can chew and you lose units, for really no strategic purpose, just to hold a piece of terrain.”

Sun Tzu wrote, “The warrior skilled at stirring the enemy provides a visible form, and the enemy is sure to come. He proffers the bait and the enemy is sure to take it. He causes the enemy to make a move and awaits him with full force.  He lures his enemy into coming or obstructs him from coming. He retreats, eluding pursuit, too swift to be taken.”

Sound familiar? If one studies Sun Tzu’s maxims, there are many similarities to be found in any number of scenarios the United States has faced or will face in the future.

The Art of War states, “Look into the matter of his (the enemy’s) alliances and cause them to be severed and dissolved. If an enemy has alliances, the problem is grave and the enemy's position strong; if he has no alliances, the problem is minor and the enemy's position weak.”

Simply put, Sun Tzu is saying that the United States and her allies must not allow the Taliban and Pakistani extremists to get together. The more isolated the Taliban is from friendly governments or regimes, local tribal leaders, and the Afghan population, the greater the chance of successfully defeating it.

Sun Tzu even provides insights into the best way to handle prisoners of war, writing, “Treat prisoners of war kindly and care for them. Use victory over the enemy to enhance your own strength.”

Many say the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo early in the war helped fan the flames of hatred against the West. However, there are many who argue that terrorists and insurgents are guilty of far worse – not only against soldiers on the battlefield but also civilians, journalists and UN staffers .

It’s clear that General McChrystal would like to take the war in a different direction and it is also clear that President Obama is carefully analyzing the situation before making a decision, despite remarks by hawks like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who accuses the administration of “dithering.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy faced a hostile military leadership, contemptuous of a young, untested President. Rather than giving in to the Joint Chiefs who recommended an all out attack on the Soviet Union, Kennedy chose a different way – one that many argue saved the world from nuclear annihilation. A few years later, President Lyndon Johnson, a politician with significant foreign policy and military experience (Johnson served as chairman of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee), gave in to General William Westmoreland’s request for a significant increase in troop levels in Southeast Asia. By the end of the war, 58,000 American troops were dead.

The ghosts of Vietnam and of every war, lie with the lessons of Sun Tzu. The U.S. easily defeated the Taliban in 2001. Can the U.S. defeat the insurgents this time around? General McChrystal thinks so. In September, he told “60 Minutes” that, "We must change the way we think, act and operate."  Clearly he recognizes that the previous strategy has failed, but in the long run, failure is not an option. This was made clear in an interview Christiane did with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she asked Gates what would happen if the Taliban were to succeed.

“Their view is, in my opinion, that they now have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower, which, more than anything, would empower their message and the opportunity to recruit, to fundraise, and to plan operations,” Gates said.

He went on to say, “There's no question in my mind that if the Taliban took control of significant portions of Afghanistan, that would be added space for Al Qaeda to strengthen itself and more recruitment, more fundraising.”

So, when General McChrystal states in his report that, “We must redefine the nature of the fight”, he is, knowingly or not, alluding to a fundamental principle of The Art of War:

“Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”

“War is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death. A road to either safety or to ruin. Hence, it is a matter to be pondered carefully.”

Filed under:  1 • Afghanistan
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Danielle

    This article does a fabulous job of connecting the dots between many of Christiane's recent shows. Clearly President Obama has much to consider in this regard. I am heartened that he seems to be employing a more thoughtful decision making process than we may have seen in the past 8 years.

    November 19, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  2. fulfilament

    Great post.

    However, let's think about strategy for a moment – specifically, Obama's strategy as it relates to Afghaninstan. Applying the Art of War or any other strategic framework merely to Afghanistan overlooks the larger issue: this isn't just a decision about one specific situation, one specific place.

    Obama's decision takes place within a far broader context: domestic politics, geopolitics, relations with the Pentagon, macroeconomics and on and on.

    I'm not closely familiar with the Art of War's strategies, but I think that one would need to vastly widen the strategic playing field when thinking about Obama's decisions here.

    November 19, 2009 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  3. Fawad

    US can use one of the most ineffective strategies and can still defeat the militants. But the real question is: What's next?

    Corrupt Afghan government will invite the support for militancy eventually, may be not right after the ultimate defeat of insurgency but some day when Americans will feel comfortable about leaving the country.

    As Tom Friedman has said sometime ago:They will suffer and learn. I'm paraphrasing a bit but that's true you can't do much without an Afghan partner. Winning a fight against the militants will not give you Afghanistan free from militancy

    November 19, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  4. fulfilament

    Note to moderator: Please remove my first post and replace it with the following.

    Great post – really interesting material on how ideas inform strategy and tactics during war. Makes me want to read Art of War again much more closely!

    When I think about Obama and how he'll make this decision, I tend to widen the strategic context to include other factors like domestic politics, geopolitics, relations with the Pentagon, macroeconomics and on and on.

    But I bet even on this larger strategic playing field, Sun Tzu's teachings have a lot of validity and I bet Obama is familiar with the work. Just a hunch.

    Great article, lots of interesting stuff to think about!

    November 19, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  5. Jack

    Great perspective and connections in this article. Although, in regards to interviewing McChrystal and other military officials, it's hard to fight the strong impression that nothing groundbreaking or even gritty and real can be extracted. It seems that speaking to the military often only generates bits of catchy rhetoric at best (shock and awe, etc.), with obscure or ominous insinuations that heighten paranoia or silence dissent at worst.

    November 19, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  6. Seda

    One does need to define who the enemy is in Afganistan. Is it the Taliban, is it the warlords, is it Al Qaeda, is it the extremists of all kind, is it the drug traders? The "enemy" in Afganistan has so many shapes and forms. There should be a tactic for each of those US wants to get rid off.

    No one really said clearly what the ultimate goal against these "enemies". When would you be able to say the job is really "done"? Is that ultimate goal really doable?

    Even then, will another 40,000 soldiers really going to make a difference from where we are today ? Are we trying to to dig a grave with a spoon?

    November 19, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  7. Ibukun

    This seem quite good. But when both enemies apply the same strategy what happens?

    November 20, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  8. Meherzaidi

    It is amazing how complicated this US withdrawal will be from this region. The initial attack by US was in haste, a rash decision. There should have been a dialogue with other powers in the region, Pakistan, India,Iran, China on how to deal with Al Qaeda. Tne hasty decision to send troops and bomb Afghanistan did nothing to help. Look how a nuclear country is bieng destabilised and attacked by the terrorists and still US is so unsure of the decisions. It should again go for a regional moot on this and develop a consensus strategy. The policies of persuing this issue as a a war only and one country,one decision ,framework is so stupid! We need a regional approach. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear, antagonising one at the expense of the other and especially when there is no governance in Afghanistan
    will not help.

    November 20, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  9. Deborah J. Boyd

    An interesting article. What Afghanistan & Pakistan need more than anything else is security and for the next 20 years a massive infusion of secular education for all people. Until we can replace the growth of poppies with a viable economy how can we possibly expect this dirt poor country to survive on it's own.
    I think Pakistan has made more progress since the change in the civilian government took place. I strongly believe that more progress would have been made if radicals had not killed the most popular heroic political leader that should be there now.
    Especially in basically illiterate populations the personal popularity of heads of state can not be ignored. What President Obama really needs is for the Arab countries to take a stand against the radicals.

    November 22, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  10. TJ Colatrella

    Sun Tzu also said....

    "No nation has ever benefited, from prolonged War...!"

    This study also highlights America's attack upon Iraq as a classic misdirection and our greatest military and strategic blunder in history...

    al-Qaeda and The Taliban's real objective has always been Pakistan and it's nuclear arsenal any part of it...as well as Afghanistan of course...

    There is so much in The Art of War our leaders could have benefited from...I fear it's too late now...the dye is cast...

    November 22, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Reply

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