Saturday, July 29, 2006

Storming Beirut? Why Israel Resists Expanding the Ground War in Lebanon

Yesterday's New York Post ran an excellent commentary by Ralph Peters on why the Israeli military hesitates to expand the gound incursion beyond Southern Lebanon. According to Peters:

The answer's straightforward: Different cultures fight for different things. Arabs might jump up and down, wailing, "We will die for you Saddam!" But, in the clinch, they don't - they surrender. Conventional Arab armies fight badly because their conscripts and even the officers feel little loyalty to the states they serve - and even less to self-anointed national leaders.

But Arabs will fight to the bitter end for their religion, their families and the land their clan possesses. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah exploits all three motivations. The Hezbollah guerrilla waiting to ambush an Israeli patrol believes he's fighting for his faith, his family and the earth beneath his feet. He'll kill anyone and give his own life to win.

We all need to stop making cartoon figures of such enemies. Hezbollah doesn't have tanks or jets, but it poses the toughest military problem Israel's ever faced. And Hezbollah may be the new model for Middle Eastern "armies."

The IDF's errors played into Hezbollah's hands. Initially relying on air power, the IDF ignored the basic military principles of surprise, mass and concentration of effort. Instead of aiming a shocking, concentrated blow at Hezbollah, the IDF dissipated its power by striking targets scattered throughout Lebanon - while failing to strike any of them decisively.

Even now, in the struggle for a handful of border villages, the IDF continues to commit its forces piecemeal - a lieutenant's mistake. Adding troops in increments allows the enemy to adjust to the increasing pressure - instead of being crushed by one mighty blow.

This is also an expensive fight for Israel in another way: financially. The precision weapons on which the IDF has relied so heavily - and to so little effect - cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars to seven figures per round. Israel has expended thousands of such weapons in an effort to spare its ground forces.

Theoretically, that's smart. But we don't live in a theoretical world. Such weapons are so expensive that arsenals are small. The United States already has had to replenish Israel's limited stockpiles - and our own supplies would not support a long war. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, a relatively easy win, we were running low on some specialized munitions within three weeks.

Precision weapons also rely on precision intelligence. It doesn't matter how accurate the bomb is if you can't find the target. And Israel's targeting has been poor. It even appears that Hezbollah managed to feed the IDF phony intelligence, triggering attacks on civilian targets and giving the terrorists a series of media wins.

The precision-weapons cost/benefit trade-offs aren't impressive, either. Killing a terrorist leader with a million-dollar bomb is a sound investment, but using hundreds of them to attack cheap, antiquated rocket launchers gets expensive fast.

Just as the U.S. military learned painful lessons about technology's limits in Iraq, the IDF is getting an education now: There's still no replacement for the infantryman; wars can't be won nor terrorists defeated from the air; and war is ultimately a contest of wills.

Those of us who support Israel and wish its people well have to be alarmed. Jerusalem's talking tough - while backing off in the face of Hezbollah's resistance. Israel's on-stage in a starring role right now, and it's too late to call for a re-write.

As a minimum, the IDF has to pull off a hat trick (killing Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, would be nice) in order to prevent the perception of a Hezbollah victory - a perception that would strengthen the forces of terror immeasurably.

If this conflict ends with rockets still falling on Haifa, Israel's enemies will celebrate Hezbollah as the star of the Terrorist Broadway (Ayman al-Zawahiri's recent rap videos were an attempt to edge into Hezbollah's limelight). Israel - and the civilized world - can't afford that.

Yes, Israel's casualties are painful and, to the IDF, unexpected. But Hezbollah isn't counting its casualties - it's concentrating on fighting. In warfare, that's the only approach that works.

Israel and its armed forces are rightfully proud of all they have achieved in the last six decades. But they shouldn't be too proud to learn from their enemies: In warfare, strength of will is the greatest virtue.

Peters just grazes the subject, but the Israeli government is practicing restraint in the face of international pubic opinion. It's a wonder that nation-states can ever win wars in the current postmodernist climate of practically universal opposition to the use of force (there were American antiwar protests even against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001). See also this piece from Sally Buzbee, published at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which lays out more broadly the many risks for Israel in the current conflict, win or lose.


Jon said...


Great post and it appears that it has already emboldened the leader of Hezbollah to claim that they have won a victory over the enemy in the border town. Not that hezbollah has really won anything other than a PR victory.

I do think tyhat eventually Lebanon will have to comply with the UN Resolution that calls for them to disarm Hezbollah. If they had already done this hundreds of Lebanese civilians would still be alive and the Beriut wouldn't be sitting in near total ruin for the bombardment from Israel.

Donald Douglas said...

Hi Jon!

Thanks for commenting. I'll be posting more about this. The Buzbee link in this post is suggestive in that almost all the participants in this war will be harmed to some extent, and in fact Hezbollah and Iran may come out temporarily strengthened.

Take care.