September 8, 2006
Crossroads at the Litani
Originally published by the Straus Military Reform Project
at the Center for Defense Information
As its tanks file back from the Litani River, the
Israel Defense Force (IDF) joins the club of advanced military forces
that have failed against non-state enemies. It’s a growing fraternity
that already includes France, Britain, India, the USSR, and, of course,
the United States. What happens next, however, is more interesting than
the loss itself.
In the near term, Israelis can be forgiven some pessimism.
They will have to expect that Hezbollah will reconstitute.
Given the level of destruction Israel has wreaked on non-Shi'ite targets,
it is a good bet that some new Hezbollah supporters will be Sunni, Druze,
or even Christian. The Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Lebanon has already
convened a religious conference that condemned Israeli “aggression”
and praised the resistance.
Because these non-state groups—and only these groups—have successfully
waged war on Israel, and, by continuing the insurgencies in Iraq and
Afghanistan, on the West, they are gaining legitimacy with the Arab
street. This legitimacy comes at the expense of existing Arab state
governments because these governments are seen as de facto allies of
Israel: they aren’t going to confront the IDF and they keep non-state
resistance organizations under a tight leash. If popular sentiment continues
to swing towards Hezbollah and the other resistance groups, some Arab
governments will be overthrown. As the foreign minister of Qatar recently
lamented, “The street is not with us.”
Legends will arise to inspire and sustain this new generation of fighters.
In place of “Remember the Alamo!” it will be “Remember Aitaroun!” Muslim
children had been taught the tales of heroic figures, from Khalid ibn
al-Walid, who led 7th century Arab armies during multiple conquests,
to Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders. Now they will have contemporaries
Perhaps most worrying of all, after some 60 years, an effective opponent
to the IDF has finally evolved. The Israelis have fought the Arabs so
long that they have violated an ancient rule of strategy: Don’t train
your enemies. The Lycurgan Law of Sparta explicitly warned against repeated
attacks on the same enemy. It served them well for centuries, but when
Sparta flouted this rule against emerging rival Thebes, it lost so decisively
at Leuctra (371 B.C.) that it never recovered.
On the other hand, none of this has to prove fatal.
In the arena of strictly military issues, Israel
should come out fine after some hard self-examination. Tactically, the
war was no great surprise. Advancing armies have always had problems
against dug-in and tenacious defenders armed with modern weaponry. But
well-prepared forces know how to deal with this situation—the Marines
did take Iwo Jima—and the IDF can recover its competence. Strategically,
there was also nothing new. Country-wide bombing campaigns have never
delivered on their promises. Kosovo, which the IDF took as its inspiration,
dragged on 76 days longer than its advertised three and ended only when
NATO cobbled together a ground threat and Russia pulled the rug out
from under Milosevic.
Whether Israel will emulate the United States, which absorbed the lessons
of Vietnam, or the USSR, which did not long survive Afghanistan, will
depend on how well they solve higher-level problems:
Israel must get over its fixation with state
opponents. It now needs neighbors who can control the non-state
groups that are its real nemeses. In particular, the Palestinians
either need to be formed into a state of the type that Israel can
deter or easily defeat, or they need to be given to such a state.
Israel must also abandon the idea that war is
a play in some rational chess game of states. One move they should
foreswear immediately is the notion of using acts of war to “send
signals.” They’ve been sending signals since 1949, and anybody interested
in receiving them did long ago. In any case, it should be clear
by now that military force is more often effective when kept as
Finally, when Israel must show the knife, it
needs a more sophisticated military doctrine than attrition warfare.
It’s very difficult to win a war of attrition against groups that
espouse martyrdom. And even when it is successful, the resulting
death and destruction are certain to create new enemies. Oddly,
an Israeli historian and strategist, Martin van Creveld, wrote the
seminal work on non-state/”fourth generation” warfare,
The Transformation of War. The Israeli leadership might
dust it off.
To some degree, these three points apply to the
United States. We also run an immediate risk with our smallish (135,000)
occupation force isolated in Iraq, and every day we stay, we’re rolling
the dice against longer odds. Iraq is a country of 27 million people,
60 percent of them Shi'ites who were thrilled about Hezbollah’s victory.
It is not fortuitous that our supply lines from Kuwait run for hundreds
of miles though predominantly Shi'ite provinces.
Chet Richards writes for the Straus Military Reform
Project at the Center for Defense Information. He is a retired colonel
in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and the author of
Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead and
Certain to Win.