Sun Tzu and ISIS: An Old Guide to New Strategies

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I’ve actually written quite a bit on ISIS to date, so it may be prudent for those that are unfamiliar with WarCouncil.org to visit some of these other short essays in order to provide some broader context:

Moreover, I’ve also written about Sun Tzu, most recently with respect to the War in Afghanistan:

“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?”

So how does the core of Sun Tzu’s strategic logic describe ISIS?  How can we use Sun Tzu to understand ISIS strategic behavior?  

Let’s start with American strategy. The President’s speech on ISIS on September 10, 2014 included language that US non-military strategy would include, among other things, efforts to counter ISIS’s “warped ideology.” More specifically, “It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.”  So a key part of US strategy is informational.  The US is doing this in two ways.  First: denying ISIS legitimacy as a state actor, which can be seen in the seemingly infinite versions of what to call “them” (Daesh, ISIL, IS, Islamic “State,” and my favorite – “The Group That Calls Itself A State”).  Second: the more of what the world sees of ISIS the more it will mobilize global public opinion against them. 

Here’s how ISIS is running Sun Tzu’s counsel to attack the informational part of US strategy.  The public executions target Westerners (they’re not doing this to everybody – they just let 350 Yazidis go) and are truly barbaric but simultaneously are the most violently theatrical way of demonstrating territorial control. Moreover, these hostage situations necessarily force states with captive citizens to negotiate with ISIS as if they were a state. Lastly, ISIS’s specific selection of journalists for targeting deters future reporting, which denies us part of our informational strategy (same playbook the Russians used in Crimea).

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Rubik’s Cubes and Contemporary Warfighting

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

One of the most important parts of being a strategist is understanding the environment.  To have a grasp on the zeitgeist sharpens analysis and focuses the mind on what “is” and what might come. My contribution to this is the assessment that the contemporary warfighting environment is dominated by what I call “Rubik’s Cube” conflicts.  This is an adaptation of Emile Simpson’s reference to Iraq as a “mosaic” conflict (see War from the Ground Up, p. 95). The term “mosaic” is not quite right as it indicates a static environment, whereas I see a more dynamic environment. My definition of a Rubik’s Cube conflict:

Any conflict or war which features at least one belligerent cohort fighting for common military objectives while motivated by multiple and (potentially) shifting social, ethnic, cultural, religious, or political causes.

Some will see this is similar to Frank Hoffman’s (great) work on hybrid warfare, particularly owing to one big commonality: defining a multifaceted enemy.  Hoffman’s definition of a “hybrid threat”:

Any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battle space to obtain their political objectives.

These are two separate attempts to define the contemporary warfighting environment. Hoffman defines the ways in which hybrid threats employ force – modes of warfare.  My effort is to define what appears to be a shift in the ends – the disaggregation of battlefield actors motivations for war.  For example, during the Cold War, the vast majority of battlefield actors motivations could be traced directly to either Uncle Sam (the U.S.) or Uncle Joe (the U.S.S.R.).  The catalyst often came from Washington or Moscow. 

This is not the case today.  Moreover, this disaggregation has led to a corresponding increase in the number of armed groups.  So instead of fighting the monolithic Soviets, a well-traveled American military officer might recently have faced: Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, international terror organizations (not to mention Al Qaeda affiliates), the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, as well as a Regionally Aligned Forces mission to train African military forces to hunt Joseph Kony.  All these actors have different motivations for fighting; all could be considered a different colored tile (while on the same face) of these Rubik’s Cube conflicts.

Which raises an important question – how well has the U.S. done in this paradigm?

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Sun Tzu: Attack the enemy’s strategy first – two recent examples

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.

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