6,000 days into Afghanistan, US needs a lesson from Sun Tzu

On Monday, the war in Afghanistan marked its 6,000th day. Ending violence in Afghanistan appears, at times, to be a forlorn dream, but the recent developments suggest the U.S. policymakers might actually get the job of striking the perfect balance between military strikes with comprehensive intelligence-based operations done.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Kabul this week, and stated that certain segments of Taliban want to pursue peace, and, for that, the door for talks needs to be kept “open.” Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan also insisted that the peace prospects in Afghanistan should not be ignored.

With this, there arises a question as to whether Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” offer the most comprehensive solution to the contemporary war in Afghanistan.

{mosads}Sun Tzu has focused more on surprise attacks, intelligence-based operations and cunning strategies while Clausewitz lays great emphasis on conventional military strikes. So, which one is going to work out best in Afghanistan: Clausewitz’s conventional military maneuverings or Sun Tzu’s shrewd intelligence operations?  President Trump might have chosen the latter when he appointed Mike Pompeo, previously CIA director, as the secretary of State, and Gina Haspel as the new CIA director.

Winning the war in Afghanistan is based on how and whether the insurgents are decimated from within. For this, intelligence operations offer the only way out. The piece outlines three basic reasons as to why the war in Afghanistan can be best won by employing the “cunning” warfare tactics employed by Sun Tzu.  

Irregular warfare

The dynamics of the war in Afghanistan must clearly be noted. The United States is fighting an irregular war in Afghanistan, where tactical-level victories do not account for much, and a decisive strategic-level victory is what the counter-insurgents need to look for. This is why the United States often finds itself in a flux. The war in Afghanistan is a limited war, and resorting to military strikes and direct combat missions alone just won’t help.

Instead, maneuverability, strategy, and tactical planning is more important than using heavy artillery. But, even though the war in Afghanistan requires enhanced intelligence-based operations, it is still a war. If it’s to be won, it needs to be categorized as such.

As M.L.R. Smith notes:

“Call it what you will — new war, ethnic war, guerrilla war, low-intensity war, terrorism, or the war on terrorism — in the end, there is only one meaningful category of war, and that is war itself.”

Also, as Sun Tzu noted, military prowess doesn’t lie in “attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles,” but subduing “the enemy without fighting” is an art that needs to be mastered.

Collateral damage only adds to the U.S. and NATO forces’ woes

Direct military strikes might be tempting in the fact that these help eliminate certain number of insurgents, but the collateral damage in an urban warfare as epitomized in Afghanistan only adds to the sufferings of the counter insurgents. Even a single civilian casualty has the potential to turn the entire population against the counter insurgents. And, in the case of foreign troops, this is likely to happen more often than not.

In terms of the best warfare strategy in Afghanistan, as I’ve written previously, “It’s important to be shrewd. It’s important to be diplomatic. It’s important to learn the art of subduing the enemy from within, with ease.”

Also, as Steve Coll notes in his latest book “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, collateral damage has always hampered the American forces, and in turn, helps the Taliban recruit more fighters in Afghanistan.

Political Institutionalization

Without effective and comprehensive political institutionalization in Afghanistan, the insurgency in Afghanistan is unlikely to end. Covert, rather than overt, political maneuverings can help a country like Afghanistan. Even if fiery rhetoric and artillery-infantry firepower can help in decimating the Taliban, the lack of political institutions in the country will only lead towards a superfluous government having little legitimacy and sovereignty.

A cogent political structure needs to be envisaged for Afghanistan, and this can only be achieved by pursuing Sun Tzu’s shrewd political calculations, and not through Clausewitz’s preference of heavy artillery over intelligence operations.


The fighting season in Afghanistan is just around the corner. Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel have just joined the team. Whether they will be able to achieve success in Afghanistan depends on how well the U.S. administration is able to rely on psychological operations. The United States has invariably invested much in Afghanistan.

Mattis recent noted, “All wars come to an end.” This is true for the war in Afghanistan, too. But, the outcome rests with the Trump administration, and, particularly, whether they’re able to take a lesson from Sun Tzu’s book.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst for the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times and RealClearDefense, among others.

Tags Afghanistan Counter-insurgency Donald Trump Invasions of Afghanistan Jim Mattis Mike Pompeo Military Military history by country Taliban War War in Afghanistan War on Terror

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