"Asymmetric warfare" has become the new buzzword and bogeyman of military thinking. For our purposes, asymmetric warfare is war between a state and guerrilla groups who supposedly have much more limited resources. Many believe that such wars are unwinnable as General Amidror
points out in his analysis. Amidror asserts that asymmetric conflicts can be won by states, provided the goal is not unconditional surrender, as in World War II, but rather a "suspension" of hostilities. He points to the American surge in Iraq and the Israeli success against Palestinian violence as examples of such "victories."
These examples do not lend much credence to Amidror's thesis, since the war in Iraq is far from won. The success of the "surge" is at best partial. Israel
won one battle against terror and achieved a temporary standoff in the West Bank. However, the daily rain of rockets from Gaza, as well as the many attempted attacks from the West Bank, and occasional successes, indicate that the war is far from won.
Amidror insists that only continuous offensive action against guerrilla forces can ensure success. He cites Operation Defensive Wall in 2002 as a positive example, where an offensive action was able to stop terrorist activity in the West Bank. He cites the defensive posture of the IDF when it occupied southern Lebanon as a negative example, since the power of the Hezbollah
was not reduced. Amidror couches his analysis in theoretical terms, but it is apparent that he is considering the question of what to do about Gaza. He rightly points out that an extended truce or "Tahidiyeh" will only serve to increase the offensive capabilities of the Hamas, creating a dangerous enemy after a deceptive period of quiescence, just as happened in Lebanon with the Hezbollah between 2000 and 2006.
As with too many discussions of Middle East related issues, most analyses of asymmetric warfare are done to support a political point rather than to understand the issue, and therefore they are as likely to add to the confusion as they are to elucidate the problem. An analyst who believes that the Iraq war or the Israeli confrontation with the Hamas requires aggressive military action is going to "prove" that asymmetric wars are winnable, citing examples such as the Tupamaros/Shining Path in Peru or the Chechen uprising, while an advocate of negotiations and compromise is going to cite the Vietnam war and the Algerian war, among others, as examples in which guerrilla forces were successful. Amidror may be right about the need to confront Hamas, but his analysis of asymmetric war leaves much to be desired.
While it is not possible to resolve all the issues connected with asymmetric warfare, General Amidror's analysis and some others indicate that at least a few points have been neglected in such discussions. It is worthwhile examining them. Unwinnable War Syndrome
- If state military bodies all insist that guerrilla wars are unwinnable, whether or not it is true, then one of two outcomes is inevitable. One possibility is that within a few generations the entire system of state governments, and especially those of the democracies, will be overthrown, because every dissatisfied group will be free to mount insurrections. The defense establishment of those states will not put up serious resistance, because the "conventional wisdom" holds that such wars are unwinnable. A second possibility is that democratic states will change the rules, and learn how to fight by proxy as the Iranians are doing, through guerrilla groups under their control. Lessons of the Vietnam War
- The Vietnam war supposedly demonstrated the invincibility of guerrilla forces. A neglected second and more important "lesson," was that losing such a war does not have the dire consequences that war advocates predict. Advocates of the "domino theory" insisted that if the United States lost the war in Vietnam, the entire region would fall to communist insurgents in guerrilla wars. Since this did not happen, the motivation to fight such wars in the future was reduced. Vietnam is a peaceful state and its neighbors have not become communist. This undermines the credibility of predictions for the results of an American pullout from Iraq. It should not, since the two situations are different. It was very convenient for Israel to believe it could withdraw from Lebanon and Gaza with no ill effects, following the lesson of Vietnam. Indeed, for several years it seemed that the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was a "success" inasmuch as the border was more or less quiet. In both Lebanon and Gaza, however, the pessimists proved to be correct. Military vs Diplomatic option
- Military and diplomatic options are often presented as mutually exclusive alternatives, or it is claimed that in every situation, only one of them is necessarily valid. Advocates of "Victory" like Daniel Pipes seem to be insisting that there is only a military option. Others insist that since guerrilla wars are unwinnable, there is only a diplomatic or political option. The real world is much more complicated. There can be a diplomatic option if the enemy is willing to make peace on reasonable terms. This willingness is usually brought about by war. Before the Six Day War
there was no diplomatic option with Egypt. Egyptian terms for "peace" would have amounted to dismemberment of Israel. The Six Day War started a process that made peace with Egypt possible. As long as Hamas
and Hezbollah insist that their goal is destruction of Israel, there is no diplomatic option. The definition of military victory is therefore, at least, creation of a situation where the other side will negotiate an honorable and reasonable peace - not a "peace" like the one negotiated by the United States and North Vietnamese, which was, essentially, surrender of South Vietnam. Resilience and ability to absorb casualties
- Yaakov Amidror maintains that the results of the Intifada prove that Israel is as resilient and able to absorb casualties as the enemy. This conclusion can be charitably described as wishful thinking. Israel holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners, but the Palestinians do not make as much of an effort to free them as Israel does to free Gilad Shalit. The Palestinians "absorbed" about 5,000 deaths in the years of the violence, but nonetheless voted for the violent Hamas and opted to continue the violence. The Israelis "absorbed" about a thousand dead. This was sufficient to generate the disengagement strategy and to bring about withdrawal from Gaza. During the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Israel suffered about 20 fatalities a year. This relatively low death toll sufficient to create an irresistible grass roots movement for evacuating Lebanon. During the Second Lebanon War
, Israel suffered about 150 fatalities, while inflicting over a thousand dead on the smaller Lebanese population. The Hezbollah
declared "victory" while Israeli society viewed the war as a disaster.
Cultural, technological and economic factors make a society like Israel and an organized army like the IDF more vulnerable to damage than a society like the Palestinians and an insurgent group like the Hamas. In modern societies, people expect that the army is a phase in life. You complete army service, and then you go on to study, raise a family and have a career. For members of the Hamas, the Hezbollah and like organizations, fighting is the career, and it is a phase on the way to either "martyrdom" or victory. Modern societies and economies require organized and dependable infrastructure. If rocket fire prevents people from going to work or terror attacks destroy business centers and discourage air travel, the economy is materially damaged. The Palestinians do not have much of an economy or much infrastructure to support it. They have relatively little to lose. Human Rights Issues
- Amidror notes:
Experience has shown that the international community is not always prepared to legitimize an attack – and that is the nature of fighting terrorism – in the presence of civilians who are not terrorists and who run a high risk of being harmed.
The outcry following the most recent IDF offensive in Gaza illustrates the problem. But Amidror forgets this problem when he tells us:
As opposed to the Americans, it is not necessary for Israel to add “restraint” in the use of force as a principle of war...a small country like Israel can deal with terrorism and guerrilla organizations only if its response is not proportional and is carried out in such a way as to convince the other side that it too has something to lose. A proportional response will drag Israel into a war of attrition whose rules will be determined by the terrorists, and which it will lose. A country like Israel can successfully cope with terrorism and guerrilla tactics only if it retains the ability to respond disproportionately; otherwise, it will find itself fighting according to the enemy’s rules.
It is an absurd idea, precisely because Israel is a small country. Nobody could stop the United States if it wanted to use the most brutal methods, just as nobody can stop China from committing atrocities in Tibet, and nobody could stop Russia from brutal suppression of the Chechen insurrection. Israel however, is a small country with few natural resources, few allies, no veto in the UN security council, and great vulnerability to economic and political sanctions should the world chose to use them. That is precisely what is stopping Israel from an extended operation in Gaza right now. Moreover, Amidror is wrong. Disproportionate response is not much of a deterrent. Short of annihilating the terror organization, almost any outcome that leaves a group like Hamas or Hezbollah in any condition to fight will be viewed by them as a victory. As I noted before, half a loaf may be poisonous. Just as I predicted, Hamas claimed victory after the recent Israeli operation, because Israel withdrew and Hamas remained intact. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah have any concern for civilian casualties, since these can be blamed on Israel, and since the people making the decisions are in Tehran and Damascus. They are not particularly interested in the welfare of the Palestinians. Damage to industrial infrastructure is not a factor either, since most of their weapons are manufactured abroad and smuggled in.
The asymmetry of standards that are applied to democratic countries versus those applied to guerrilla movements like the Hamas, the Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents or to despotic governments, is the really important asymmetry in modern asymmetric war. The constraints of international law on warfare developed gradually in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were not applied seriously until after World War II. They were intended to prevent a repetition of Nazi horrors, but they also helped to level the playing field between democratic states and terrorists. They created an opportunity for terror groups and a dangerous vulnerability for democracies.
An additional problem is created when a hostile international community deliberately misinterprets laws and applies them selectively, so that Israel is subject to criticism that is not directed at other countries. Given that terrorist guerrilla groups install themselves in the midst of civilian populations, practically any action against the terrorists will result in civilian casualties, and can be labeled "indiscriminate attacks on civilians." When the Lebanese army killed large number of civilians during its assault on the Fatah al Islam group in Nahar el Bared, no condemnations were forthcoming from human rights groups or the UN Human Rights Council. When Israel does the same thing, newspaper headlines around the world screem of "Holocaust" and "Massacre." The United States and NATO forces kill civilians in accidental bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan with virtually no negative consequences. Hamas can and does use civilians as human shields. IDF of course, cannot do that. By inappropriate extension of conventions of war, virtually any action against the Hamas in Gaza can be labeled "collective punishment," though the conventions were obviously not meant to apply to conditions of active armed combat. The U.S. is, likewise, subject to different standards in Iraq than those applied to Russia in Chechnya, to Turkey in its fight with the Kurds, or to China in Tibet.
This asymmetry may be unfair, but it is a fact of life that has to be taken into account when considering what actions Israel or the United States can take in combating insurgencies.
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Replies: 1 Comment
"As long as Hamas and Hezbollah insist that their goal is destruction of Israel, there is no diplomatic option. "
Yet Israel did negotiate truces, cease fires and prisoner exchanges with Egypt, Jordan even prior to negotiating peace with them. This only proves your point that military force and negotiations work together.
"Yaakov Amidror maintains that the results of the Intifada prove that Israel is as resilient and able to absorb casualties as the enemy. This conclusion can be charitably described as wishful thinking."
It is true that Israelis value life more than the Palestinians, but it is unfair to say that their concern for Israel life is so great that they cannot absorb casualties. The Israeli public did not break in the face of casualties both in Lebanon or in the Intifada. In the intifada the withdrawal from Gaza only came after the attacks against Israelis were reduced significantly and public confidence was restored. At the height of the violence ideas of withdrawal had little support. In Lebanon the breaking point was not the no. of casualties but the realization of the public that the army and government had no idea what they were doing. The withdrawal from Lebanon was also mostly motivated by the feeling that Israel was stuck in a continues warfare that was going nowhere. Israelis accepted the casualties for a decade before that.
"But Amidror forgets this problem when he tells us:
As opposed to the Americans, it is not necessary for Israel to add “restraint” in the use of force as a principle of war...a small country like Israel can deal with terrorism and guerrilla organizations only if its response is not proportional and is carried out in such a way as to convince the other side that it too has something to lose. A proportional response will drag Israel into a war of attrition whose rules will be determined by the terrorists, and which it will lose. A country like Israel can successfully cope with terrorism and guerrilla tactics only if it retains the ability to respond disproportionately; otherwise, it will find itself fighting according to the enemy’s rules."
I think Amidror is right here. The Arabs want a war of endless attrition in which neither side wins but Israel is gradually harmed over time economically, diplomatically and morally. Conversely, our interest is to maintain as normal a daily life as possible, which means that we want quick wars and long ceasefires (if peace is not an option). In order to have that we must avoid wars of attrition and use disproportionate force to get the other side to agree to long ceasefires and to deter them from breaking them as long as possible. The ceasefires should be used to seek peace but also to prepare for war.
So I agree with Amidror about that, but it still does not mean that we can ignore issues of human rights, if for no other reason than because modern warfare involves a great degree of propaganda to which we must prepare as much as we do for the other aspects of modern (or rather post-modern) warfare.
A short quick overwhelming war is better in that respect too, because whatever civilian casualties do occur, since the news cycle of the war is kept as short of possible, the propagandist effect can be reduced if the other objectives of the war are achieved. Furthermore, a drawn out war increases the chances of civilians being hurt. In the recent war in Lebanon the air force might have avoided having a diasterous accidental killing of a large number of civilians for a week, maybe two, but eventually we were bound to have another Kfar Kana.
Amidror is also missing another thing. Occupying the Palestinians or Lebanon forces the Israel inevitably into the kind of war he wishes to avoid.
"Moreover, Amidror is wrong. Disproportionate response is not much of a deterrent. Short of annihilating the terror organization, almost any outcome that leaves a group like Hamas or Hezbollah in any condition to fight will be viewed by them as a victory."
I must disagree with you here. You present the situation in terms that are too extreme. Yes, it is more difficult to force win a victory against the Hamas or Hizballa. But they too have things they are afraid to lose, and which can be used as leverage to achieve the temporary ceasefires that are necessary both to sustain Israeli daily life and to pursue peace. In the case of the Hizballa we can see that the harm caused to Lebanese in the war has reduced somewhat Hizballa's legitimacy to use southern Lebanon as a base for attacks across Israel's border over the Shabaa Farms (prior to the war the Lebanese public opinion supported attempts to force Israel out of the farms since it did not threaten them). The Hamas seeks a ceasefire with Israel because it fears loosing its power in Gaza. On the other hand, prior to the withdrawal from Gaza the Hamas kept a ceasefire because it did not wish to appear to its public as if it is sabotaging the withdrawal from Gaza. In the West Bank the army was able to use an effective strategy to achieve a significant if not absolute reduction of violence which in turned enabled Israelis to return to relatively normal daily life.
In all these cases a complete victory is unattainable but temporary partial achievements can be gained, especially if Israel acts more wisely than it had in recent years.
There is also no point to cry about the unfairness of international public opinion. It is just one more problem we have to deal with as best as we can. Although there is no perfect solution to this problem, there are ways to make it better. For example, the reduction of violence in the west bank resulted in less casualties among the Palestinians, which in turned improved Israel's image. Embedding journalists with Israeli soldiers can be used to cause world media to see things our way. In Lebanon Israel played into Nasseralla's hands by focusing on air assaults in areas where he has control of the news images. But a successful ground attack into Lebanon might have given Israel control of the images, and it could have shown more images of the bunkers and missiles that nasseralla built in southern Lebanon.
Micha, Tuesday, April 15th
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