Two pieces out this week seek to illustrate the lessons that should be drawn from Israel’s disastrous engagement with Hizballah in 2006. The Combat Studies Institute of the US Army Combined Arms Center has published a 96-page monograph by Matt Matthews, entitled We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War [PDF]. Meanwhile, the latest issue of CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, has an article by IRG member and King’s College War Studies PhD candidate Andrew Exum, entitled Drawing the Right Lessons from Israel’s War with Hizb Allah [PDF].
Much in the Matthews piece is perceptive, including the assessment that the IDF adopted a strategy that was over-reliant on air power, technology and a faulty interpretation of effects-based operations:
As enemy rockets rained down on northern Israel, the IDF attempted to orchestrate the strategic cognitive collapse of Hezbollah through the use of air power and precision firepower-based operations. When this failed, the IDF sought to produce the same effects by using its ground forces to conduct limited raids and probes into southern Lebanon. These restrained initiatives designed to create a cognitive perception of defeat also failed to produce the effects necessary to incapacitate Hezbollah. The presence of several IDF mechanized divisions north of the Litani in the first 72 hours of the war, combined with a violent, systematic clearing of Hezbollah’s bunkers and tunnels, might have brought about the cognitive collapse [Chief of the IDF General Staff] Halutz so desperately sought. Unfortunately, the new IDF doctrine failed to incorporate a large land maneuver component into its effects-based approach.
According to Ron Tira, one of the major problems within the IDF was “the over-zealous embrace of the American effects-based operations (EBO) idea. EBO’s aim is to paralyze the enemy’s operational ability, in contrast to destroying its military force. This is achieved by striking the headquarters, lines of communication, and other critical junctions in the military structure. EBO [was] employed in their most distinct form in the Shock and Awe campaign that opened the 2003 Iraq War. However, the Americans used EBO to prepare the way for their ground maneuvers, and not as an alternative to them.”
However, in an echo of the ongoing debate in America regarding whether or not US forces are becoming overly focused on counterinsurgency rather than conventional warfighting, Matthews argues the inability to ‘step-up’ from COIN to conventional operations was key to the IDF’s failure in Lebanon:
Another crucial factor in the IDF’s reverses in southern Lebanon was the dismal performance of its ground forces. Years of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations had seriously diminished its conventional warfighting capabilities. The IDF was completely dismayed to find that its land forces could not conduct a successful ground campaign in southern Lebanon. Although Naveh was heavily criticized, his observations are astute and timely. “The point is, the IDF fell in love with what it was doing with the Palestinians,” he stated. “In fact it became addictive. You know when you fight a war against a rival who’s by all means inferior to you, you may lose a guy here or there, but you’re in total control. It’s nice, you can pretend that you fight the war and yet it’s not really a dangerous war…. I remember talking to five brigade commanders…. I asked them if they had an idea… what it meant to go into battle against a Syrian division? Did they have in mind what a barrage of 10 Syrian artillery battalions looked like?”
In the conventional arena, the IDF ground forces performed unsatisfactorily. The fight at Wadi al-Saluki, for example, revealed the failure of tank commanders and crewmen to use their smokescreen systems, the lack of indirect-fire skills, and the total absence of combined arms proficiency. The IDF lost many of these perishable combat skills during its long years of COIN operations against the Palestinians.
While there is undoubtedly some validity in this argument, it requires qualification. As Exum argues in his article, “The greatest mistake the U.S. military can make in studying the lessons of 2006… is to study the 34 days of fighting that took place in southern Lebanon in July and August of that year without any context.”
The IDF’s failure was not over-learning the principles of counterinsurgency, but not having applied them effectively in the years prior to the 2006 war: “Israel never dealt with the root political problems in southern Lebanon that led to the rise of Hizb Allah. The 2006 war did not take place in a 34-day vacuum; it was merely the latest bloodshed in a dispute between Israel and Hizb Allah that has been fought with varying degrees of intensity since 1982.”
The 2006 war was not evidence, then, that Israel had over-learned the lessons of counter-insurgency, but rather the opposite: Israel has never effectively learned counter-insurgency in the first place. Even in the West Bank and Gaza, the IDF continues to approach the fighting there as a counter-terrorism mission instead of a counter-insurgency mission. Moreover, while the presence of both a radicalized settler population and historical animosities might preclude the application of an effective counter-insurgency strategy in the Occupied Territories, Israel has never developed and applied counter-insurgency doctrine along the lines of FM 3-24 despite years of experience in irregular warfare dating back to Jewish guerrilla groups in pre-state Israel.