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Give peace a chance

Give peace a chance

Author: Irfan Husain
Publication: Dawn
Date: February 17, 2007
URL: http://www.dawn.com/weekly/mazdak/20070217.htm

It almost comes as a surprise to learn that one of the most influential books in the world, particularly in the field of warfare, was written well over 2,000 years ago. Sun Tzu's Art of War has come to be recognised as an essential work for generals and commanders, as well as for rulers. More and more, it is being studied by corporate executives for tips about leadership qualities.

I am not sure if Pakistan's military academies and staff college have made the Art of War required reading, but one of their most distinguished alumni, General Pervez Musharraf, has ignored the Chinese thinker's very first dictum. The book opens with this sage advice: "Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analysed."

To be fair, Musharraf is not the only commander to ignore this wise counsel. Time and again, politicians and generals have approached war as the first resort, instead of the last. But as Sun Tzu says:"If it is not advantageous, do not move. If objectives cannot be attained, do not employ the army. Unless endangered, do not engage in warfare. The ruler cannot mobilise the army out of personal anger. The general cannot engage in battle because of personal frustration. When it is advantageous, move; when not advantageous, stop. Anger can revert to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy, but a vanquished state cannot be revived, the dead cannot be brought back to life."

The last phrase would be an apt memorial to the hundreds of soldiers who fell on the heights of Kargil. Or, indeed, the thousands who have perished in Iraq. Both conflicts, although completely different in nature and scope, reflect the same rash impulse to rush into battle without adequate analysis and thought.

The brief but intense conflict in Kargil in 1999 demonstrates the consequences of focussing on tactics, while losing sight of strategic considerations. Here, without provocation, the Pakistan army sent thousands of infiltrators to occupy the heights in the dead of winter. This covert move was a brilliant tactical success as it caught the Indians entirely unprepared. But as they mobilised quickly, and Pakistan became entirely isolated, our troops became highly vulnerable not just to artillery fire and air attacks, but also to the bitter cold and disrupted supplies. Had the Americans not provided the means to a humiliating retreat, the entire Pakistani contingent might have been captured or killed.

Clearly, there had been little or no analysis of the consequences of the Pakistani initiative. Sun Tzu, had he been alive, would have pointed out the many holes in GHQ's plans. Firstly, Pakistan was hardly endangered. Then, there was no prospect of a clear-cut victory. But there was the very real danger of the conflict spreading to the entire border, and then going nuclear.

If generals can get gung-ho and rush to war, so can politicians. As the Gulf War and subsequent occupation of Iraq continues along its destructive path, a steady stream of disclosures has made it abundantly clear that from the very outset, a cabal of right-wing ideologues have taken America into battle without much thought to the fallout. The results of this mindless action might last longer than we think. And although Sun-Tzu's timeless text is taught at West Point, it seems the generals were forced to embark on this mad adventure.

For Sun Tzu, the best general is the one who can attain victory without having to fight his enemy: "Thus, the highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy's plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities… Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people's armies without engaging in battle… and destroys other people's states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under heaven with the paramount aim of 'preservation.' Thus his weapons will not become dull, and the gains can be preserved. This is the strategy for planning offensives."

Clearly, the Kargil operation was designed to pay political dividends: the idea was to force India to negotiate seriously about Kashmir. But anybody who was in touch with mainstream Indian thinking on Kashmir could have told our generals that they did not have a hope of succeeding in their goals, even if the military manoeuvre had been a complete success. However, relying solely on their ill-formed diplomatic and political ideas, the generals convinced themselves that they would get what they wanted: a way to break the deadlock. Whether they convinced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is still disputed.

The reality is that warfare today is far more complex than it was in Sun-Tzu's times. Although his basic philosophy has stood the test of time remarkable well, technology, economics and international diplomacy have changed the nature of warfare. Time has been telescoped; distances shrunk; and weaponry made infinitely more lethal. Thus the margins for error are far thinner. Miscalculation can cause nuclear annihilation, and misunderstanding can lead to carnage on an unimaginable scale.

So as we watch the slow-motion build-up to a possible attack on Iran, we can only hope those planning for this contingency have studied the lessons of the Art of War well. Currently, Iran does not threaten either the United States or Israel, whatever the rhetoric of President Ahmadenijad might suggest. Iran is an ancient and proud state that wants to be treated with respect. While the temptation to strike at its nuclear facilities might be strong, western commanders and politicians need to pause and reflect on the consequences.It will become clear to the meanest intelligence that Iran is not without the means to retaliate both militarily and economically. And it will lash back with both conventional and unconventional weapons and methods. The region and, indeed, the whole world, will be in turmoil for years.

Given the extremely tenuous nature of a possible victory, Sun-Tzu would have advised inaction on the military front, while concentrating on a diplomatic solution. This is precisely what many sane people are counselling. So for a change, will Bush & Co please give peace a chance?

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