Monday, December 29, 2008

How relevant are the "lessons of the 2006 war" for the current Israeli assault on Gaza

Many pro-Israeli commentators are making statements about how the IDF has learned the lessons of the 2006 war against Hezbollah and how the mistakes which were then committed by the Israelis would not be repeated today. Sounds good, but it also makes me wonder what exactly they are referring to? Let's take a closer look at the two main aspects of the 2006 war and see whether they are really relevant to the assault on Gaza today.

The bombing campaign by the Israeli Air Force:

So far, if there were any "lessons" learned from 2006 one can be excused for not being able to identify which ones: the Israelis are bombing buildings with the hope of hitting the forces of the resistance. That, of course, assumes that resistance fighters are stupid enough to hide inside the targeted buildings. Why would any infantry force be so kind as to conveniently hide itself inside easily identifiable and targetable buildings is anyone's guess, of course. So if there was a "lesson" to be learned from 2006 it would be that BUILDINGS are not COMBAT FORCES. Simple, but totally overlooked by the Israelis. Or is it? If one assumes that the Israelis are truly after Hamas, then it would appear that the Israelis are just amazingly obtuse and do not learn their lesson. But if one makes a different assumption, that the Israelis are not trying to hit Hamas, but are trying to make the civilians population pay for its support for Hamas, then the Israeli strategy makes sense (in a sick way). Of course, this is also what took place in 2006. The reality is that Israel never really attempted to destroy Hezbollah with air strikes. Weaken it somewhat, yes, probably, but not really destroy it. Today we are seeing the same "garden variety" Israeli form of terrorism which uses F-16 to punish a misbehaving Palestinian population. Is that an effective technique? Of course not, but that is one the Israelis simply like. So much for the "lessons learned" thing.

The ground invasion

After being humiliated by Hezbollah's defiant resistance to its 2006 version of "shock and awe", the Israelis send their ground forces into Lebanon with the somewhat vague objective of "disarming Hezbollah" and freeing the two Israeli soldiers made prisoners by Hezbollah. The result of that was a 28 day SNAFU which will rank as one of the most humiliating defeat every inflicted on a military force. How would an invasion of Gaza compare to the 2006 invasion?

First, it is important to stress here that the terrain in Gaza is dramatically different from the one in southern Lebanon. While the latter is a combinations of hills, narrow valley and small villages, Gaza is flat and extremely urbanized. Gaza is also of a rather elongated shape (take a look at the high-res map by clicking on it), so Gaza can be cut into several separated sections by an Israeli combined arms thrust towards the coastline. The main advantage of such a strategy would be mainly psychological: it would give the Israelis the opportunity to say that they have taken control of "all of Gaza". Good PR for sure, but fairly useless in military terms as it would still leave the main urban areas in the hands of the resistance. What to do with these areas is really the key decision which the Israeli generals have to make: do they go in or not?

If they decide to stay clear from the highly urbanized sections of Gaza they will have achieved very little in military terms: Hamas will just pull back its forces inside and keep on striking the Israelis in a way and manner of their choosing. If the decide to go in the urban areas then the Israelis will be looking at a type of war which the never had to face before.

Sending in Merkavas is simply not an option. This is exactly what Eltsin's defense minister Pavel Grachev did during the first Chechen war when ordered a hastily assembled Russian armored force enter Grozny . We know the result: the Russians did rapidly get inside the center of Grozny, but only to be immediately slaughtered by Chechen infantryman with antitank weapons. Not even the Israelis could repeat such a crude tactical mistake (Grachev was one of the most incompetent officer to ever command a Russian military operation).

The correct way to invade an urban center like Grozny or Gaza is to do what the Russians did in the second Chechen war: to send in heavily armed mobile infantry units, supported by armor coming in *behind* them. Such a force has to move in with little or no support from the air (helicopters are too vulnerable, aircraft too prone to blue on blue mistakes) and it cannot make much use of advanced military technologies besides UAV/drones and nightfighting optics. Could the Israelis repeat the Russian operation in Grozny? That really depends on the quality of their soldiers but my guess is that they cannot.

For the second Chechen war the Russians did not repeat Grachev's criminally incompetent mistakes: they sent in very well trained forces, a mixture of Airborne Forces, Naval Infantry, Special Operations units, Internal Ministry special forces (SOBR), FSB special forces (Vympel, Gruppa A) etc. Many of these forces were composed of professional soldiers with a great deal of combat experience and with a strong determination to eradicate the Wahabi Chechen terrorists which had taken over the Chechen republic.

Organized in mobile infantry operational groups the Russian forces retook Grozny building by building, with some instances of close quarters and hand to hand combat against the Chechens, and while the Russian forces did not suffer as many casualties as some had predicted, their losses were not trivial either. It takes a great deal of resolve to be able to pull off that kind of operation. Are the Israelis capable of this kind of resolve? I don't think so.

From a "real" fighting force, the IDF has gradually transformed itself into a "punitive" forces whose main capability is to shoot, kill, maim and otherwise terrorize and humiliate Palestinian civilians. Then there is the deeply ingrained Israeli racism which makes them believe that the Palestinians are somehow "inferior" to them. In contrast, while the Russians definitely hated the Wahabi Chechen leaders for the innumerable atrocities these terrorists were guilty of, the Russians never felt that the Chechen people were somehow "inferior". Most Russians, in fact, knew that the Chechens are formidable and courageous fighters and they respected them for that.

The Israelis have neither the training nor the guts to take back the urban areas of Gaza house by house. In stark contrast to the Israelis, I am willing to bet that the Palestinians are impatient for that kind of fight to begin and that Hamas and the other Palestinians are as ready as ever to finally get a chance to take on their oppressor in a fairly even combat.

For all their boisterous hubris, the Israeli commanders probably know all this and while it is hard to make prediction about what kind of follies a born looser like Olmert might commit before he finally leaves office (Olmert is, I think, in the same league as Grachev), my guess is that the Israelis will not reinvade Gaza.

Yes, they will go in, kill many Palestinians, and then declare victory and leave (probably under the figleaf of some kind of a Egyptian or Quartet brokered deal). In the end, Hamas will win a first military victory which will be strenuously denied by the Zionist controlled media. Ditto for the US political class: remember how Dubya announced to the world that Israel had "defeated" Hezbollah in 206?

Hamas is not Hezbollah, not by a long stretch. But the Israelis are every bit as stupid as they were in 2006, that is the real "lesson" which the Palestinians will learn from all this. Hopefully, this ill-conceived Israeli assault is what will finally make Hamas into a Hezbollah-like force and then Israel will find *itself* surrounded by a "wall" of its own: a wall of resolve and courage by the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance forces. Lastly, the Israeli blunder into Gaza will contribute to destabilize the puppet Mubarak who will find himself in a position similar to the one of Siniora and the rest of the Israeli puppets in Lebanon.

While the first couple of days probably feel good for many Israelis, we can count in hearing the first cries of "oi veh!" fairly soon. Israel will find out the hard way that there is no quick fix for the Gaza problem out there.

The Saker