The Art of War

Impressionist or Surrealist?

« Know thy enemy » says Jon Meacham in a Newsweek editorial, quoting Sun Tzu’s Art of war, relating it to the magazine’s special report about the Taliban in the third September 2009 issue. He puts the American-led wars in a new yet controversial framework

When it comes to war, it is quite easy to blame politics not to foresee or fore-plan and to show the inconsistency of their approach and the unjustifiable shifts in their strategy. But it is hard to admit, as Meacham does, that the people’s promised change was, in that field, more of the same. That is: The Obama administration is as blamable as the Bush organization.

« Know thy enemy ». This simple sentence could summarize all of the President’s foreign policy … when he was still campaigning. If he was elected, it was partly because he convinced electors that Afghanistan was the mother of all their problems while Irak was a mere waste of time and, might he add, a costly mistake. Only knowing your enemy, and therefore concentrating your efforts, isn’t enough to win a war. Or at least, this isn’t what Sun Tzu meant. The quote is in fact, incomplete. In the Chapter 10 of the Art of War, Tzu writes: « If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete »

It is not enough to know who your target is. You need to know what your target is and whether your means can make it bend. Afghanistan is Irak in no way. To whoever lived in the Middle East, the difference between the two feels like an ocean. For example, a few months ago, the American intelligence discovered that Bin Laden was managing to hide thanks to his tight links with the chiefs of some Afghan tribes who regularly offered him their hospitality. Nobody hid Saddam in Irak. Afghanis feel like in the middle of nowhere. The Taliban people feel untouchable, masters of their land, and therefore believe there is no way they could lose this war. On the contrary, for years under Saddam, the Iraqi citizens have felt observed. They quickly cooperated with the Americans against the ones who they thought were bringing chaos to their country. You cannot go to war the same way in a scared country and in a rebel one.

The debate in Washington revolves around two extremes which entail two possible strategies. Should the weight be put on nation building, as it was done in Iraq, fighting the Taliban both on the war field and on the political field through a strengthening of the country’s infrastructure and feel of a civil society? Or should we concentrate on eliminating the terrorists we first came in here to find? Shouldn’t a nation seek its sole interests and isn’t the latter our true motivation? It was. It no longer is. The fact is it’s too late to keep reasoning this way. America has spent too much time in this country. It cannot consider itself unaccountable for what happens after it wins or withdraws. Moreover, the US foreign policy has shifted some years ago, even during the Bush years. While the US used to go to war in order to allow democracy to be put into practice, as it did during the cold war, today, the nation is trying to activate democracy in order to prevent war.

In other terms, we went from “get peace - stuff in democracy” to “implement democracy -peace will come along”. In this respect, the US government wonders whether it is going down the right road in Afghanistan. Needless to say the question is haunted by the specter of the Vietnam mistakes. Are we being stubborn? Are we throwing oil on fire? Are we belittling the regional consequences? What if our drawbacks here encourage the Pakistani extremists to step forward in their own country and reclaim power (and the nuclear weapon that comes with it)? Do we know who and what we are facing?

No. You do not. You never do. That is why Tzu talks about the Art of War, not the Science of War. You need to deceive you enemy, playing dead for him to make a move. You need to picture things as if the battlefield was a painting and your actions the brush that lays down the color. Since you’re on the enemy’s territory, painting on the canvas he always knew, you need to know what you are doing perfectly, yet look as if you were in perdition. No need to impress him. Let him think you are dumb. Let him believe you are losing, then with the last stroke of your brush, turn his head to the canvas you’ve been roaming on and let him realize that while he thought he was winning, you were drawing his defeat.