Monday, 21 May 2018

Nawaz Sharif and the Art of War, by Fahd Husain

As Nawaz Sharif fights an existential battle, can he draw upon the wisdom of words written 2,500 years ago in China?
The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise authored in 5thcentury BC by military strategist Sun Tzu. Through the ages, the book has inspired generals and leaders across the globe — shaping their minds and policy stratagems as they went about ruling, fighting and conquering opponents.
In the same spirit, here’s what Nawaz Sharif could possibly draw from the lessons of Sun Tzu as written in The Art of War: (headings extracted from a blog ‘10 Practical Life Lessons from Sun Tzu’s Art of War’ by Patrick Kim)
1. Choose your battles
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
Nawaz may have calculated that this battle is worth fighting for, but he may need to factor in the wisdom of the ‘all-or-nothing’ approach when clearly there are alternatives available. A close reading of the political terrain may suggest that the ‘winner-takes-all’ environment not visible to the discerning eye.
2. Timing is essential
“The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”
Is this the right time — on the cusp of a critical election — for Nawaz to burn his ships and take on everybody else? The answer may depend on what will constitute a victory for him. If this victory means winning the coming elections, then perhaps the timing of his frontal attack on the opponents may lead to limited options in case outright success eludes him. The PML-N as a party is still strong, still sturdy and still filled with winning candidates in Punjab. It can fight the electoral fight. But it needs time and space to fight this fight; to negotiate tactical manoeuvres and motivate its electoral warriors with hope of victory. An ill-timed do-or-die strategy by Nawaz may starve his political army of all options except to go down in a blaze of glory.
3. Know yourself, know your enemy
“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.”
Information is power. Nawaz has access to this power because his party is ruling at the centre and in Punjab. In another ten days it will not. This access to official reports, to Intelligence Bureau briefings, to the movements of his opponents, etc, will be cut off. Nawaz will be at a severe disadvantage on the battlefield which is already skewed against him. If winning the election is his foremost priority, this squeezing of the information pipe may not amount to much, but if the priority is a larger battle, then he might want to take stock of his strengths and weaknesses in order to take prudent and rational decisions.
4. Have a unique plan
“All warfare is based on deception.”
Which means being predictable is a liability. So far, Nawaz’s game is sounding predictable: take a swing at the establishment every which way you can. It’s bordering on a ‘scorched earth’ policy where he seems bent on burning everything down in a bid to emerge victorious. This predictability — which is coming at the cost of deft and nimble politicking and strategising — is making it easy for his opponents to plan their manoeuvres. When the Lodhran victory took his opponents by surprise, they rolled out Plan B within a short time. Their offensive against his government in Balochistan was followed by yet another successful ambush in South Punjab. Nawaz was caught unawares. He needs to stop being predictable and start practising a bit of deception.
5. Disguise your plans
“When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Perhaps Nawaz is disguising his plans and indulging in some delicious deception. Perhaps he and his younger brother have it all figured out and are using their dual narrative as a means of deception to keep their opponents guessing. Perhaps his raising the temperature to boiling point is part of the strategy to disguise his real plan of suddenly mending fences with the establishment through back channels and pulling a fast one on Imran Khan. Perhaps allowing Imran Khan to cement his position as a ladla is part of the plan, as is baiting the Judiciary and NAB to go after him and consolidate his narrative of persecution. Perhaps he’s not really this angry, this reckless and this brittle but in fact is putting up a deceptive act. Perhaps. But what if he’s not?
6. The best way to win is not to fight at all
“To win 100 battles is not the height of skill, to subdue the enemy without fighting is.”
Often the threat of a fight, and the perception of one, can achieve more than the fight itself. Can the PML-N gain more by deft belligerence than by being belligerently daft? Nawaz has proved to the world — and to his nemesis — that he’s no walkover. But by not agreeing to roll over and play dead, he has defied expectations of those who thought they had him on that day in July when they disqualified him. With each act of defiance, he has strengthened his negotiating position — and that of his party. If his definition of success is his party returning to power despite all odds, he can pivot back to the table and make gains without the battle — gains that he may not achieve if he goes through with the battle.
7. Change represents opportunity
“In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.”
Nawaz is swimming in a sea of change. In the last two years the entire political landscape in Pakistan has been upended and the hunters are now the hunted. Nine weeks before elections his party is shedding electables like bad skin and the noose seem to be tightening around the party’s electoral prospects. And yet the situation is as fluid as can be. Nine weeks can be a shortcut to oblivion or a long route to salvation. Nawaz can, if he wants, ride the change instead of being devoured by it. This may require pulling a rabbit out of his hat and snatching an electoral victory from the jaws of defeat. This in turn may require recognising opportunities in the midst of chaos; providing space to Shehbaz Sharif to untangle some knots and weave a tapestry of possibilities that bypass the laid-down path of Imran Khan.
Success is relative, unless it is clearly defined. The candidate needs to know what he is campaigning on, and the voter needs to know what he is voting for. The problem with the PML-N today is a growing lack of strategic clarity.
Sun Tzu would not have gone to war armed with such ambiguity. 
Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2018.

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