Why Israel Lost

TCS Daily

August 14, 2006

A front-page story in Monday’s Washington Post declared Hezbollah “The Best Guerrilla Force in the World” and noted that, “As the declared U.N. cease-fire went into effect Monday morning, many Lebanese—particularly among the Shiites who make up an estimated 40 percent of the population—had already assessed Hezbollah’s endurance as a military success despite the devastation wrought across Lebanon by Israeli bombing.”

And they’re right. Israel has accepted a truce that falls far short of its original war aims, failing to establish control over their border with Lebanon, let alone deliver a crushing blow to Hezbollah. As many of us have argued from the moment Israel launched this campaign, there was no way a modern state, constrained by a Western moral code and the pressures of a democratic society, would achieve these incredibly ambitious goals. Failure to achieve one’s political objectives in a war, by definition, constitutes defeat.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and author, argues that Israel was done in by a hostile media that simply doesn’t understand the nature of war and feckless politicians who lacked the will to use adequate force, especially ground troops, from the onset of the campaign.

These constraints, however, are part and parcel of asymmetric, panoptic war. A good number of us understood that from the get-go; surely, the Israeli security apparatus, with far more experience in such matters, knew, too. But politicians faced with the pressure to “do something” did the wrong thing the wrong way.

Peters does not believe we can win “Eastern wars with Western values.”

Despite media lies about Israeli “atrocities,” the IDF has been doing all it can to spare civilians. For example, the Israelis repeatedly risked commando teams deep in hostile territory to take out Hezbollah command-and-control cells — instead of just leveling the crowded apartment buildings where the terrorists were hiding. But, ultimately, all of the special operations in the world will fall far short of delivering decisive, crushing victories. We are going to have to learn to fight by the enemy’s rules. And we aren’t going to like it.

I would argue just the opposite is true. There are few “decisive, crushing victories” for the state actor in an asymmetric conflict. The reason the Israelis lost here was not too many commando ops and not enough awesome bombing attacks but the reverse. When guerrillas are hiding in small cells in large civilian clusters, each leveled apartment building is a “decisive, crushing victory.” For the guerrillas.

Williams College Middle East scholar Mark Lynch points out that scores of photographs of maimed children were filling the front pages of the region’s newspapers from the beginning of hostilities and “shaping Arab views towards the Lebanon crisis—particularly in the key anti-Hezbollah Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt)” and that al-Jazeera “is dominating the media landscape right now for better or for worse.”

That the terrorists are hiding among civilians is both “unfair” militarily and a violation of the laws of war. It is, however, a reality with which states must cope. Powerful states simply cannot combat terrorists using the same tactics they would apply to a conventional war with a traditional enemy. Massive aerial bombardment and armored invasion are excellent for, say, toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime but they’re actually counter-productive in counter-terror/counter-insurgency ops.

The editor of the Defense and the National Interest website puts it this way: “As important as finding and destroying the actual combatants, for example, is drying up the bases of popular support that allow them to recruit for, plan, and execute their attacks. Perhaps most odd of all, being seen as too successful militarily may create a backlash, making the opponent’s other elements of [4th generation warfare] more effective.

Commando raids, which have the advantage of minimizing non-combatant casualties, and other precisely targeted strikes are simply much more reasonable and effective options in this environment. They of course take away some of the force multipliers enjoyed by modern armies and, ironically, make the fighting far less asymmetrical. Such tactics, too, may well mean more friendly casualties in the short term. They are, however, the only proven way of defeating insurgencies and terrorist groups.

Peters, whose strategic analysis I have respected since I was reading his Parameters contributions as a grad student, thinks we have failed to learn the lessons from Vietnam, Somalia, Beirut, and other cases where the weak beat the strong in an asymmetric fight. He continues with variations on the tired saw that the superior, professional military would win if only its hands were not tied behind its back. This ignores Clausewitz (or, if you prefer, Harry Summers) and presumes that the definition of “victory” in war is military rather than political.

Short of turning their enemies into radioactive parking lots, well within the military capabilities of the United States and Israel, there is no defeating an entrenched, motivated guerrilla force through the application of strategic bombing or massive armored assaults.

Original article Internet archive