Thursday, May 1, 2008

Paradigm shift: how Hezbollah won the July 2006 war

By M. Shahid Alam for

On January 31, 2008, when the Winograd Commission submitted its final report on the Second Lebanese War of July 2006, this was a first in Israeli history: a report on why the Israeli military had failed in a war.

The Winograd Commission offers a quite honest appraisal of some aspects of the July 2006 War. It acknowledges that it was “a serious missed opportunity.” Israel had “initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory (italics added).” The Commission notes that a militia “of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages.” Nothing could reverse Israel’s handicaps: not even a massive ground offensive launched in the last days of the war.

Yet, after this clear-headed assessment, the Commission stumbles. It blames Israel’s military setback on “serious failings and flaws” in decision-making, preparedness, coordination between the civilian and military leadership, and strategic planning. In other words, the Israeli military’s poor showing in July 2006 was not the result of any fundamental shift in the balance of forces. These failures were the result of a few bad judgments, inadequate preparation and less-than-optimal coordination between different branches of the Israeli military.

We cannot credibly blame the Israeli defeat on failures in decision-making. Israel had many years to destroy the Hezbollah during its long occupation of southern Lebanon; but it withdrew unilaterally in April 2000, with the Hezbollah claiming victory. In July 2006 too, the Israeli military fell far short of matching its earlier easy victories over Arab armies: but this was not because of failures of leadership, the failure to use sufficient firepower (which it did), or the failure to launch a timely ground offensive (it would get grounded the way it had before).

The Israeli military offensive of July 2006 had failed because Israel was fighting a war that did not play to its advantages in size and technology. Israel had finally met its match — a foe that was prepared to fight, that knew how to fight on its own terms, a foe that was elusive and cunning, skilled and daring, ready to adapt its methods to neutralise Israel’s technical superiority, that controlled its terrain, and, most importantly, was backed by Iran and Syria. For the first time in its history, an Israeli invasion had been reversed by a cunning guerilla resistance.

In the past, Arab armies had handed easy victories to Israel. Repeatedly, the Arab states chose to fight conventional wars: they sent their poorly trained, poorly motivated military to fight against the best, most determined military force the developed West could put together. Israel’s victories against the Arab armies is overrated: it always remained an unequal match. The Palestinians chose to fight a guerilla war in Jordan in the late 1960s, but they did so prematurely, without preparing the political conditions for their success. They were defeated because they were forced to fight on two fronts: against Arab enemy states and the Israelis.

The Israelis only deceive themselves when they use alibis — bad decisions or inadequate preparation — to ‘explain’ their military failures. Ever since their withdrawal from southern Lebanon in April 2000, the Israeli leadership had prepared for the occasion to deal a knockout blow to Hezbollah. Indeed, when the Israelis launched their latest invasion of Lebanon, they had had more than six years to prepare.

The Hezbollah too had prepared. Without fanfare, but with dedication, discipline, skill, and cunning, the Hezbollah leaders assembled an arsenal of low-tech rockets as well as more advanced missiles; they built secret bunkers; they laid out defensible communications; they acquired capabilities in electronic warfare; they used drones and eaves-dropping equipment to gather information; they placed spies inside Israel; they studied their enemy; and, most importantly, they had planned and trained, while maintaining the highest secrecy.

Israel executed its long-planned offensive against Hezbollah on July 12, 2006, using the excuse of a border skirmish to launch a full-scale war against Lebanon. They launched massive air and artillery strikes against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure — targeting Beirut and sites as far north as the port city of Tripoli.

Israeli ground forces crossed the Lebanese border the same day, and continued to expand their ground invasion in stages throughout the war. During the 33-day war, the Israeli air force flew more than 15,000 sorties and struck 7,000 targets in Lebanon; the Israeli navy imposed a blockade on Lebanon, and bombed 2,500 Lebanese targets; and, all told, the Israelis destroyed 15,000 homes, 900 commercial buildings, 400 miles of roads, 80 bridges, and Lebanon’s international airport. Lebanon’s human toll at the end of the war consisted of 845 dead, including 743 civilians, 34 soldiers and 68 Hezbollah guerillas. In addition, close to a million Lebanese were forced to flee their homes. The intent of these genocidal attacks was to turn the Lebanese against the Hezbollah. The Israelis failed in this objective too.

In all its wars against Arab armies, the Israelis had achieved clear victories within days. In 1956, they had captured nearly all of the Sinai in about seven days. In June 1967, they crippled the Egyptian air force within two hours: and the war against the three front-line Arab armies was over in six days.

In October war of 1973, the Israelis recovered from their initial losses to cross the Suez Canal ten days after the start of the war, and five days later they had encircled the Egyptian Third Army, a mere 40 miles from Cairo. On the Syrian front, the Israelis had advanced to within ten miles of Damascus. Since 1973, Israel has many times violated the sovereignty of Arab states with impunity.

In contrast, Israel’s full-scale war against Hezbollah’s small guerilla force of some 3000 fighters had lasted for 33 days, without giving the Israelis the satisfaction of claiming victory. Israel had started the war against Lebanon, convinced that it could destroy Hezbollah or greatly diminish its military force within a few days — and do it with air power alone. Israel’s decision to end the war 33 days later, even as Hezbollah kept up its barrage of Katyusha rockets into Israel, was a dark chapter in Israel’s military history. Israel’s military might had been neutralised by a seemingly Lilliputian adversary.

In July 2006, agility and cunning favoured the Hezbollah. Consider the victories that Israel failed to score against this tiny but agile foe: it failed to destroy or jam Hezbollah’s communications network; to knock out its television and radio stations; to kill or capture Hassan Nasrallah; or to dent Hezbollah’s ability to launch Katyusha rockets into Israel.

Hezbollah was firing Katyusha rockets at the rate of 100 a day during July, doubled this rate in early August, and, in the last few hours before the ceasefire came into effect, fired 250 rockets. On the day of the ceasefire, the Hezbollah still had 14,000 rockets in its arsenal, enough to continue the war for another three months.

Contrary to Israeli denials, the daily barrage of Katyusha rockets took a heavy toll on the Israeli economy. Altogether, a quarter of the 4000 rockets Hezbollah launched during the war hit urban areas: they “paralysed the whole of northern Israel, its main port, refineries, and many other strategic installations. Over one million Israelis lived in bomb shelters and about 300,000 temporarily left their homes and sought refuge in the south.” For a change, the Hezbollah had brought the war to Israel.

Moreover, the Hezbollah scored several clear victories over Israel’s military. According to an IDF Report Card published in the Jerusalem Post, Israel had deployed some 400 Merkava MK-4 tanks — its safest and deadliest tank — in Lebanon: 40 of these were hit by Hezbollah’s anti-tank weapons, 20 of them were destroyed, and 30 tank crewmen were killed. According to a report published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Hezbollah’s success with antitank weapons during the July War reflects many years spent training on these weapons as well as a good plan to use these weapons once the battle began.”

Hezbollah’s infantry or ‘village units’ — deployed along the border to slow down the advance of Israeli ground forces — “made the IDF pay for every inch of ground that it took. At the same time, crucially, Hezbollah dictated the rules of how the war was to be fought.” It is worth noting that the fighters Hezbollah deployed in southern Lebanon were not its best. “One of the war’s ironies,” Andrew Axum writes, “is that many of Hezbollah’s best and most skilled fighters never saw action, lying in wait along the Litani River with the expectation that the IDF assault would be much deeper and arrive much faster than it did.”

The Hezbollah scored its most impressive military victory in the area of intelligence. Israel’s electronic warfare systems are amongst the most advanced in the world; they are war-tested and developed in cooperation with the United States. Indeed, the Israeli commanders were certain at the outset of the war of their ability to jam Hezbollah communications. They were wrong. Hezbollah’s command and control system remained operational throughout the war; they evaded Israeli jamming devices by using fibre optic lines instead of relying on wireless signals.

The Hezbollah had blocked the Barak anti-missile system on Israeli ships; hacked into Israeli battlefield communications in order to monitor Israeli tank movements; and, they monitored cell phone conversations in Hebrew between Israeli reservists and their families. They intercepted Israeli military communications on battlefield casualties and announced them on their media network. They successfully employed decoys to hide the location of hundreds of bunkers they had built in southern Lebanon to store weapons and shelter their fighters. As a world leader in weapons technology and communications, Israel had held a decisive advantage in electronic warfare in its wars with Arab armies. The Hezbollah neutralised this advantage.

Israel claims that it killed 400-500 Hezbollah fighters. Crooke and Perry insist that these numbers are exaggerated. “It is impossible for Shias (and Hezbollah),” they argue, “not to allow an honourable burial for its martyrs, so in this case it is simply a matter of counting funerals. Fewer than 180 funerals have been held for Hezbollah fighters — nearly equal to the number killed on the Israeli side.”

The Israeli setbacks in the July war, then, represents a paradigm shift — not something that can be pinned on careless errors in decision-making. Unlike the Arab armies in the past, the Hezbollah had fought a people’s war. It neutralised Israel’s technological superiority by deploying its mobile, elusive, disciplined and skilled guerilla detachments — not a centralised, conventional army — to fight the Israelis.

The Hezbollah fights in small groups, it is evasive, it is secretive, it owns its terrain, it trains, it has high morale, and it enjoys complete popular support amongst Lebanon’s Shias. It can launch thousands of low-tech rockets which rendered sophisticated anti-missile defences useless. It has also acquired and learned to use with great effectiveness anti-tank missiles that make Israel’s most advanced tanks vulnerable. They have successfully targeted even Israeli warships.

If the Hezbollah can extend these advantages, if it can add shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to its arsenal and bring down a few Israeli helicopters and jets, Israel could quickly lose its unchallenged control over Lebanese skies. Israel’s daily and wanton violations of Lebanese airspace would also come to an end.

The Hezbollah offers Israel a new kind of asymmetric warfare: it combines low-tech guerilla tactics with sophisticated missile and communications technology. Understandably, the Israelis find these Hezbollah achievements hard to digest. What the world witnessed in Lebanon in July 2006 were events that contain the potential for shifting the balance of power in the Middle East. Earlier, the Iraqi insurgents had demonstrated that they can make an occupation — even by the world’s greatest power — very costly. Now, the Hezbollah had shown that a disciplined guerilla force, with access to advanced missiles, can repel the most powerful invading army.

It appears that the weapons gap that had opened up in recent decades between western powers and the weaker, technologically backward nations may be closing. How rapidly this happens will depend on the willingness of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran — with other countries getting ready to join them — to make these weapons available to movements of resistance. Alternatively, if these countries hesitate, the arms smugglers will step in to provide this service. Once anti-tank, anti-ship and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles can be bought on the world’s illicit arms markets as readily as AK-47s, this will begin to alter the fortunes of resistance movements battling great powers.

In the late 19th century, the advanced Western nations had opened a lethal weapons gap with their automatic weapons: this gave them a quick, nearly costless colonisation of Africa and Southeast Asia. When that gap began to close in the interwar period, it gave an impetus to resistance movements in Indonesia, Vietnam, Kenya and Algeria. Already weakened from fighting their own fratricidal wars, the western colonial powers retreated: and the Third World was born.

Will the 21st century herald the dawn of another era of gains for movements of resistance across Asia, Africa and Latin America?

The writer is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is the author most recently of “Challenging the New Orientalism