Image (2007) courtesy of Wikipedia.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Teaching Sun Tzu can be fairly straightforward – and kind of tough.  For example, what does he mean when he writes that “what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy?” (Griffith translation, p. 77).  Moreover, he writes that this should take precedence over other options – like attacking the enemy’s alliances, army, and cities (in order).  That sounds great – sort of like telling a trader to “buy low, sell high” – but what does it actually look like?

I believe I’ve found a couple of useful examples.  One is from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the other is from the war in Afghanistan.

In Israel, the region is more or less on fire.  The Arab Spring has really made things more violent and chaotic.  Yaakov Amidror, until recently the Israeli National Security Advisor, commented,

“What we see now is a collapsing of a historical system, the idea of the national Arabic state.  It means that we will be encircled by an area which will be no man’s land at the end of the day.  [He summed up Israel’s strategy as] – Wait, and keep the castle.”

At the same time, Palestinian groups are supporting a “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” initiative that is gaining support.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers this “delegitimization” movement a strategic threat – and he should. Several academic groups have cut ties to Israel, and the $200 billion Dutch pension giant PGGM split from the five largest Israeli banks recently.

So Israel is walling off the region to stay secure – and the Palestinians are taking advantage of this mentality to further isolate Israel from the world.  I think Sun Tzu would approve of this strategic jiu jitsu.

The second instance of attacking an enemy’s strategy comes from Afghanistan.  Specifically, the “green on blue” attacks that were widely covered in the press starting in the summer of 2012.  Essentially, U.S. (and ISAF) strategy was (and is) to build a credible Afghan security force by embedding international trainers in Afghan units.

The Taliban would send infiltrators into the recruit ranks in order to assassinate these trainers.  The psychological impact is clear – a trainer would find it incredibly hard to do his/her job knowing that there might be an infiltrator behind him/her with a gun.  More broadly, this slowed the training process down considerably, as the international community now had to spend much more time vetting each recruit.  The entire program even called a “halt” at one point.

With minimal investment, through these “green on blue” attacks, the Taliban was able to directly attack American and ISAF strategy in Afghanistan – again, something Sun Tzu would have supported.