Israel’s war against the Middle East’s first true terrorist army has now provided the West with some significant military, strategic and intelligence-gathering insights for future wars that will be waged in the post-modern era.
For the first time since the birth of the State of Israel, the Israeli war machine had been challenged by a small, fanatic, well-funded, well-prepared and well-trained radical Islamic army that lived to tell the story when the final bell tolled. Hezbollah’s survival, however, was due as much to mismanagement of the war effort (on the part of Israel and America) as to Hezbollah’s cunning, although the latter cannot be minimized.
At the beginning of the conflict, it appeared that all the cards were in Israel’s corner. On July 12th, Hezbollah’s cross-border raid and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers were broadly condemned across much of the Sunni Arab and Western worlds as being both reckless and irresponsible. Israel’s anticipated use of massive force enjoyed broad political support. Even the Bush administration seemed to be giving the Israeli government the time it needed to finish Hezbollah’s “state-within-a-state” status once and for all, and there was every reason to expect that Israel would complete the job in short order and that Lebanon would soon be in a position to carry out its international obligation requiring it to assume control of the south of the country and disarm the Hezbollah militia.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. To the world’s surprise and to the West’s chagrin, Hezbollah (which had secretly been converted into the Special Forces unit of Iran – unlike a rag tag gang like Hamas and the PLO) – managed to snap victory from the jaws of defeat simply by surviving. Israel should have made these distinctions at the beginning of the war, but it failed to do so – neither to the world, nor to itself. That failure may well haunt American efforts to “make the Middle East safe for democracy” for decades to come and Israel’s hopes for Middle East stability. As Raanan Gissin of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs wrote recently: “The conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon is a testing ground – like Spain in 1936 – for weapons, tactics, and doctrine of how Iran is going to fight the war against the West” in future.
So what went wrong?
Air Power and the Media Debacle
From the war’s inception, Israeli planners placed overwhelming reliance on air power, firepower and hi-tech weaponry for combating terror. For reasons discussed below, Israel sought to fight a short, virtually casualty-free war on the cheap, but a clear failure to achieve its strategic objectives – freeing its kidnapped soldiers, forcing the Lebanese army to take control of southern Lebanon, disarming Hezbollah and restoring the credibility of Israeli deterrence after the Lebanese withdrawal in 2000 and the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 – eventually required a revision to the plan leading to a last minute ground invasion to the Litani River – a decision that came too late.
While it is true that superb intelligence allowed the Israeli Air Force to destroy an estimated 80% of Hezbollah’s medium and long-range missile launchers in the first two days of the conflict, Hezbollah’s use of the Lebanese civilian population as human shields provided a boon for the media – Geneva Accords be damned. In the years to come, such flagrant exploitation of innocent civilians for propaganda purposes will have to be addressed by the West if it ever intends to defeat future enemies whose value system and culture differs widely from our own. In Lebanon, Israel wasted its initial ability to get moderate Arab government support against Hezbollah by over-escalating its air assault and, in the end, it was unable to convince the world it was controlling collateral damage and civilian suffering.
It appears that our enemies have learned the important relationship between the uses to which propaganda can be put and their long-term strategic war doctrine. We apparently have not. As Anthony Cordesman notes: “Civilians are the natural equivalent of armor in asymmetric warfare and the U.S. must get used to the fact that (future)opponents will steadily improve their ability to use them to hide to deter attack, exploit the political impact of air strikes and exaggerate damage and killings…” By forcing Israel to minimize civilian casualties or to avoid them entirely, our own laws governing warfare have now become a weapon being used against us. In post-modern warfare, civilians have become cultural, religious and ideological weapons that will be used against us if and when we find ourselves at war with different cultures.
Israel should have learned from the experiences of Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq that massive air power alone cannot be a substitute for boots on the ground and human and real time tactical intelligence. Just as the U.S. military learned painful lessons about technology’s limits in Iraq, so the IDF received an education in the second Lebanon war – that wars cannot be won nor terrorists defeated from the air. As Ralph Peters has written: “A policy of casualty aversion – in Israel or in the United States – results in more casualties in the end” and reduces our ability to wage existential conflicts.
Because the IDF was not permitted to carry out a massive land invasion together with overwhelming air power in support of land operations from Day 1 (for reasons noted below), the rockets continued to rain down on Israeli cities even as Hezbollah was winning the propaganda war. By relying at the outset almost exclusively on air power, the IDF ignored the most basic military principles of surprise and overwhelming force. Instead of aiming a death blow at Hezbollah by proceeding by land north to the Litani, cutting off Hezbollah’s means of rearming and finishing it off, the IDF dissipated its power by engaging in “wack-a-mole” techniques – striking targets scattered throughout Lebanon – while failing to strike any of them decisively. In the struggle for a handful of border villages, it added troops gradually and allowed Hezbollah a degree of flexibility that permitted it to determine the manner, time and place of battle. As Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Israelis have compounded (their) mistakes with an airpower-based strategy that, whatever its virtues in keeping Israeli troops out of harm’s way, was never going to evict Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, just as airpower alone did not evict Saddam from Kuwait in 1991”.
Olmert’s reasoning, in many ways, stemmed from that of his predecessor and mentor Ariel Sharon whose eighteen year experience in Lebanon ended with a humiliating Israeli withdrawal in 2000. The Lebanon experience was a reminder to Olmert that occupying another country to conduct “counter-insurgency operations” was both unbearable (in terms of casualties) and unnecessary (since a separation wall – so he thought – could accomplish the same ends over the long run), even in the absence of a political settlement. In his mind, as well as that of Sharon, Israelis were prepared to accept a high level of casualties in a “war of national survival”, but they would not accept low-level casualties in extended “insurgency operations” that did not directly involve Israel’s survival. In effect, Olmert failed to recognize that what was evolving in southern Lebanon was not simply an insurgency, but a conventional post-modern guerilla war with existential implications.
To Olmert, defeating Hezbollah by an invasion and occupying southern Lebanon was not worth the casualties – even if Israel was required to endure the occasional rocket attack on its northern communities. Therefore, his solution was to empower his air force to accomplish what he believed a ground invasion could also accomplish but without the casualties. However, a lack of tactical intelligence taken together with Hezbollah’s massive, sophisticated bunker network effectively blunted the Israeli air attack. As Israeli troops marched forward across the Lebanese border, they encountered a well-prepared enemy that was weakened but not destroyed by the air campaign. Even though Olmert realized that Hezbollah had to be destroyed, he was simply not prepared to commit his forces and accept the casualties such a war would involve. What he failed to consider were the political and psychological consequences of leaving Hezbollah intact on the battlefield.
Command and Control Problems
In the wake of the conflict, charges have now arisen against the top military and political echelons of the IDF concerning the delay in starting the ground offensive, mobilizing the reserves, the absence of a clear plan for victory, and the general lack of logistical preparedness including the absence of emergency evacuation procedures from the north of Israel. Israeli commanders have complained that the armored forces did not have a clearly defined mission and were shuffled in and out of Lebanon to the point that they could not explain to their own officers what was happening. Reservists in the elite Alexandroni Brigade complained about the lack of food, water and basic support equipment just a few miles inside Lebanon. One reservist Special Forces unit had been provided with guns they had never trained on and were rushed through training under conditions unlike those they faced in Lebanon. In some cases, evacuation forces never came and soldiers were required to carry the dead and wounded large distances in order to return to Israeli lines. Unachievable missions were given with impossible time lines. Daytime missions were often ordered when darkness missions would have been far safer and more effective….all of which suggests a major crisis in the leadership of the IDF.
According to DEBKA intelligence sources, both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz lacked the necessary military and foreign policy experience and skills required to manage such a war. On the face of it, it appears that Olmert has followed the same failed policies of Ariel Sharon. During his six and-a-half years as Prime Minister, Sharon shook up the top levels of the IDF’s General Command, Military Intelligence and the Mossad (Israel’s international spy network) and appointed officials who subscribed to his political philosophy. As a consequence, Israel’s top military and security echelons were chosen based upon their political outlook. Sharon “created a monolithic establishment lacking…the motivation…for developing brilliantly innovative methods of warfare”. The result was that in six years of counter-terror warfare against the Palestinians (whose war capability was no where near that of Hezbollah), the IDF focused on perfecting narrowly-defined tactics for controlling local terrorist activities (and did so successfully), but failed to produce a strategy capable of fighting a war against terrorists who operated like Special Forces.
This led to predictable results. The Chief of Staff, although advised in the third week of the war by many senior officers including reserve generals to change the Northern Command in order to restore the IDF’s offensive momentum, seemed reluctant to do so in mid-war even though such staff and strategic changes had been made during the worst hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He refused these proposed changes fearing perhaps that the Yom Kippur War analogy might prompt questions about the preparedness of his general staff for the Lebanon war (which has now occurred).
In fact, the appointments he approved in the last year and his repeated assertion that he saw no danger of “conventional war” in the IDF’s foreseeable future seem to have led to a false security paradigm that ultimately dominated the consciousness of political and military decision-makers and colored his selection of Israel’s senior military commanders.
This played itself out in the first weeks of the war. Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam, who was head of Israel’s Northern Command and was a trained and talented tank commander in classical tank warfare had never before encountered tank warfare in Lebanon’s unique, hilly terrain against a post-modern guerilla army backed to the hilt by Iranian and Syrian sponsors, trainers and weapons.
Another major failure that may emerge from a thorough review of the second Lebanon War arose as a result of circumstances that were beyond the knowledge of the Israeli field commanders. According to DEBKA intelligence reports (and supported by George Friedman’s analysis in the Geopolitical Intelligence Report): “The lack of clear decisions was manifested…in the failure to act, the non-implementation of operational plans, and the cancellation (in the midst of combat) of missions assigned to the unit. The result was that the unit was deployed too long in hostile country without any operational purpose…and (was) held back from making contact with the enemy.” The effect of this has now created a perception of weakness and vulnerability in the minds of Arab nations that have long since sharpened their knives waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
Much of this operational confusion seems to have stemmed from the inordinately large role played in the war by the U.S. Administration. Washington had been looking for an excuse to bring down Hezbollah since the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing and the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers and the initial rocket attacks on northern Israel presented the opportunity for which it was waiting.
Both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice agreed to back Olmert’s air campaign plan provided that Olmert received prior American approval for a ground offensive – which came only after weeks had passed and only after the air war had proven to be ineffective (and, some would argue) even counter-productive. This explains why Israel’s land invasion was delayed for three weeks and why the IDF was required to remain on their bases instead of engaging in battle.
When that decision finally came, it was with another stipulation that Israeli forces were not to advance to the Litani River. Again, Washington demanded a halt to the advance. By the time the final decision was made to carry out the Litani operation and to vanquish Hezbollah, it was too late. The ceasefire was effectively a foregone conclusion. DEBKA sources note: “This last disastrous order released the welter of conflicting, incomprehensible orders which stirred up the entire chain of command – from the heads of the IDF’s Northern Command down to the officers in the field. Operational orders designed to meet tactical combat situations were scrapped in mid-execution and new directives tumbled down the chute from above. Soldiers later complained that in one day, they were jerked into unreasoned actions by four to six contrary instructions.”
The problem with these contradictory directives was that none of the commanders at any level (including the Chief of Staff) could explain what was happening since they had not been privy to any of the “backroom decision-making” in the Prime Minister’s office.
But it didn’t end there. Olmert had also promised Bush and Rice to spare Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and direct his air campaign to Hezbollah’s positions and installations. As a result, Israeli forces were not initially allowed to destroy buildings known to be occupied by Hezbollah teams firing anti-tank rockets because it would have meant destroying Lebanese infrastructure. This decision resulted in a dramatic increase in Israeli casualties as the IDF was required to return again and again to cleanse terrorist bases in Maroun a-Ras, Bint Jubeil and Atia a-Chaab.
Taking all this into account, Olmert’s absolute compliance with Rice’s directives threw Israel’s entire war campaign into disorder. Supply trucks could not locate various units that were left without food and water, the subject of one of the bitterest complaints.
Underestimating the Enemy
The history of the 20th century is replete with military blunders caused by faulty intelligence and incorrect threat assessments. Israel, it seems was no exception in the second Lebanon War. Despite tracking the activities of Hezbollah for almost a quarter of a century, the recent war began with a string of intelligence failures that included the cardinal error of underestimating Hezbollah’s preparedness, armaments, training – and their fanatical determination to fight to the death. To put it in the words of Assistant Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky: “The IDF was not prepared for the war in Lebanon.”
As it happens, Hezbollah’s tacticians and their Iranian Revolutionary Guards mentors had learned the lessons of Israel’s Defensive Wall Operation against the Palestinian terrorist stronghold of Jenin in 2002. That operation ended with total Israeli military supremacy over the West Bank. Hezbollah studied the strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli operation with meticulous accuracy and using Israel’s experience as their own master plan, Hezbollah invented a unique form of guerilla warfare against an army that had not revised its own war protocols in the intervening four years. Not only had Hezbollah devolved its command structure to the unit level (making it impossible for Israel to conduct a decapitation strike), but Israel was caught off-guard by the entrenched and sophisticated tunnel and bunker network it encountered across Lebanon’s southern border – a network so extensive that did not require Hezbollah fighters to expose themselves to Israeli air power and extended their ability to continue combat without the need to re-supply their stocks of food.
Israeli intelligence also failed to detect the nature and extent of the new weapons systems Iran and Syria had provided to Hezbollah over the preceding six years – from Silkworm anti-ship missiles to longer-range Fajr and Zelzal missiles capable of striking Tel Aviv. Nor was the IDF prepared for Hezbollah’s advanced Syrian-supplied and Soviet-built Sagger, Cornet and Fagot anti-tank missiles that were able to penetrate Israel’s state-of-the-art Mercava tanks taking a terrible toll on the IDF Armored Corps. Having learned the lessons from each of its previous conflicts, Israel was about to learn one more – that its modern Mercava tank could not withstand the explosive force of these new anti-tank missiles and, in some cases, lacked sufficient underbelly armor to protect it from Hezbollah land mines. Worse, Hezbollah had come to understand very quickly that these anti-tank missiles could be used in other, more lethal ways. Aware that in close-range combat the IDF had an advantage, Hezbollah fighters set up positions far from Israeli forces and used the missiles against the Israeli infantry. More than seventy IDF infantry soldiers were killed in anti-tank missile attacks on homes they had commandeered in Lebanese villages and as they moved throughout the Lebanese countryside. As the IDF began moving its troops by foot, its infantry became easy prey for this newest generation of anti-tank rocket. In short, these new tactics forced the Israelis to fight Hezbollah’s type of war, rather than the war Israel intended to fight when it entered southern Lebanon.
Under the guidance of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah sent up drones on reconnaissance missions, implanted listening devices along the southern Lebanese border and set ambushes using state-of-the-art night-vision goggles. With the financial assistance of their Iranian and overseas benefactors, Hezbollah used global positioning devices to identify IDF movements, thermal protectors to camouflage themselves from Israel’s heat sensor equipment, advanced software for aircraft design, gas masks, cutting-edge radio equipment, dozens of rifles, various types of handguns, silencers, helmets, and protective vests. This was no rag-tag guerilla force like those encountered in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel found itself facing the Arab equivalent of the Waffen SS – a Special Forces army that had been indoctrinated for “martyrdom operations” and were trained in the use of the most technologically advanced equipment in the world. The IDF found computer parts attesting to the fact Hezbollah was acting in an orderly manner and was documenting its operations. It also uncovered a sophisticated command structure that allowed Hezbollah to observe developments outside their bunkers while still hiding inside. The electronic system had been installed inside the bunker, while a special camera had been installed outside.
Newsweek noted that Hezbollah had even managed to eavesdrop successfully on Israel’s military communications as its Lebanese incursion began and its command and control systems were state of the art, all of which heightened its advantage as a hi-tech, well-trained guerilla force fighting on its own turf.
Many of the unanswered questions relate to the success of Iran and Hezbollah in neutralizing Israeli wire-tapping and electronic jamming capabilities. How was Iran able to block Israel’s Barak anti-missile system resulting in the successful Silkworm missile attack on one of its naval gunboats? Why was Israel unable to jam Hassan Nasrallah’s electronic communications emanating from his underground bunker in the Iranian embassy in Beirut? Why was Israel unable to block Hezbollah’s command and communications links between the Lebanese command and the Syrian-based Iranian headquarters? It appears that both U.S. and Israeli intelligence grossly underestimated the tremendous effort Iran invested in state of the art electronic warfare gadgetry designed to disable American military operations in Iraq and IDF functions in Israel and Lebanon. Israel’s electronic warfare units were taken by surprise by the sophisticated protective mechanisms attached to Hezbollah’s communications networks, which were discovered to be connected by optical fibers which are not susceptible to electronic jamming. Quite simply, Hezbollah was prepared for war. Israel was not.
There is no escaping the fact that casualties are a necessary and tragic part of war and Israel must recognize that it has just fought the world’s first post-modern war against a new type of enemy…and failed to vanquish that enemy. The implications are enormous. On Tuesday, August 22, thousands of supporters of the radical Islamic group Hizb al-Tahrir (Liberation Party) called for an Islamic caliphate in the Gaza Strip as the first stage towards establishing a larger Islamic caliphate throughout the world to challenge the global domination of the infidels, led by the U.S. and Israel. The Party, considered more extreme than Hamas, has increased its popularity following what is perceived as Hezbollah’s “strategic divine victory” over Israel. And Gaza is not alone. Jordanian security forces recently foiled a similar attempt by the Party’s followers in the Kingdom and arrested most of their leaders. And speaking on the religious satellite network Al-Nas, Cairo imam Safwat al-Higazi issued an edict calling on worshippers to kill “any Zionist anywhere in wartime.”
As George Friedman wrote recently: “Hezbollah has demonstrated that total Arab defeat is not inevitable – and with this demonstration, Israel has lost its tremendous psychological advantage.” Thus, the greatest danger posed to Israel as a result of this war has been an end to its aura of invincibility. In the past, there were always certain boundaries that could not be crossed unless an enemy was prepared to accept a crushing Israeli response. It has been this perception of invincibility that has forced the nations of the Arab world to refrain from direct confrontation with Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That premise, however, has now been challenged and Israel, at some point in the near future, will be forced to restore that “perception of invincibility” lest it find itself attacked on all fronts by specially equipped, trained and indoctrinated radical Islamic guerilla armies funded by Iran and certain of their own invincibility….and in that war, the Israelis had best come better prepared to vanquish the enemy. The world of jihad is real and it is here.
Special thanks to DEBKAfile for its stream of intelligence reports and critiques relating to the second Lebanon war; Anthony Cordesman, “Preliminary Lessons of the Israeli Hezbollah War,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (Working Draft for Outside Comment), August 17, 2006; George Friedman, “Cease-Fire: Shaking Core Beliefs in the Middle East,” Geopolitical Intelligence Report,” August 15, 2006; Kevin Peraino, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey, “Eye for an Eye,” Newsweek, August 14, 2006; and Hanan Greenberg, “Hizbullah equipment surprises IDF – Troops discover cutting-edge cameras, gas masks in Lebanon; IDF official: There’s no doubt Hizbullah was prepared,” Ynet (8/11/06)