Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An Israeli Strategic Failure?

One of the most impressive analysts of strategic issues in general and the Middle East in particular is Anthony Cordesman at the CSIS in Washington.

And he has just published a brief assessment of the Israeli war against Lebanon which I take the liberty of quoting rather extensively from.

In essence, it's a rather devastating critique of the entire thing - and it's coming from one of the most well-respected observers in Washington.

His overall conclusion on Israel's military performance, based on the information available, is that "it does not seem particularly impressive either in terms of strategy or execution. Israel seems to have escalated without a high probability it could do critical damage to Hezbollah or coerce the Lebanese government, and the tactical execution of its air and land actions seems to be weak."

Hasn't then the dramatic escalation of the air and artilllery campaign weakened Hezbollah? Well, Cordesman says that "there is little sign that either the Israeli Air Force (IAF) or the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has done critical damage to Hezbollah. Israel's claims about Hezbollah casualties are vague, and reports of 100 killed would mean little in any case."

"Blowing up Hezbollah buildings breeds anger and support for the Hezbollah, but there are no high value facilities filled with critical equipment. Destroying most Hezbollah armament means using high cost precision weapons to destroy a few very low cost systems that are easily replaced. The political and propaganda value to the Hezbollah of showing it can ride out IAF strikes, survive, and grow offsets any losses reported to date."

But if the aim was to coerce the Lebanese government in taking action against Hezbollah, what has then been the performany? Here, Cordesman is no less critical:

"The broad-based IAF attacks on Lebanese targets like infrastructure, and the creation of some 600,000 refugees, has bred some anger against Hezbollah. It also has bred anger against Israel."

"What it has not done is lead the Lebanese government to rush towards decisive action against Hezbollah or towards useful reactions from the Lebanese Army. If anything, the IAF has hit enough Lebanese military targets to cause a larger reaction against Israel. The fact that the Lebanese government would not accept Secretary Rice's offer to aid the Lebanese Army in moving south reflects the lack of Israeli success to date."

It remains somewhat of a mystery that Israel could believe that such a strategy would work:

"Lebanon's confessional politics remain a powder keg, and taking on a movement with so much influence among the Shi'ites, Lebanon's largest faction, is difficult to impossible for a government that does not have massive domestic support in doing so."

"Many Lebanese do tacitly or overtly support the Hezbollah in its fight against Israel, and not simply Shi'ites. The IAF has almost certainly increased this support by exacting what are at least reported to be large numbers of strikes that hit civilians and civilian facilities. Collateral damage normally only results in temporary fear, but it breeds lasting anger."

Again, we seem to be confronted with one of those intelligence failures. For all its unlimited access to Lebanon's clear skies, the Israelis seems to have an imperfect knowledge of what's really happening on the ground.

It's a story we have seen before.

AS far as the artillery campaign goes, it "seems to have had little impact other than to create refugees and hurt Israel's image abroad. Precision fire is relatively pointless, just as area fire is, unless there is something targeted. Blowing up Hezbollah buildings accomplished no more in the area in artillery range than the rest of Lebanon, and finding and hitting small, dispersed Hezbollah targets remained extremely difficult."

If this is the case, the Israeli campaign might be on the verge of running into very major difficulties as to its future:

"So far, the image is that Hezbollah is standing up to Israel — scarcely the image Israel wants and needs — and the fighting will be meaningless unless Israel moves north in strength, or some combination of an international force and Lebanese forces actually occupy the area."

Although it is likely that the Israeli's have had limited tactical successes, it's increasingly obvious that they can't win or achieve their objectives. It's now only by some sort of international involvement that they can be extracted from what otherwise might develop into a major failure:

According to Cordesman, "this leaves the option of pressuring the international community into making up for Israel's military limitations by forcing it to react to Lebanese suffering on Israeli terms."

And that is of course effectively the Secretary Rice advanced in Beirut.

Whether this will work long-term is a completely different issue:

"The international force will probably have to do the heavy lifting, be willing to fight, and become the focus of new Hezbollah attacks and ambushes. Non-Muslims will be seen as occupiers and crusaders, and Muslims as traitors. Ambushes, bombings, and foreign volunteers will follow. Can anyone spell IED?"

IED, for those not familiar with the term, means Improvised Explosive Devices.

And it's IED that's really bringing the US Army down in the campaign in Iraq.

I guess this is what they call "the new Middle East".