No, I didn’t create this title or the sentiments behind it. I’m reporting on a fascinating new study by two senior English Mideast analysts published as a 3-part series in the Asia Times. They spent a great deal of time in Lebanon since the war ended and interviewed every military and intelligence figure in sight to come up with their conclusions. And they are sobering for the IDF and its American military ally.
My only quarrel with their approach is that, other than identifying their sources in the very beginning of the article (and then only generally, but not individually), they provide many judgments which are lightly-or unsourced. But nevertheless, their conclusions and observations are entirely persuasive:
Our overall conclusion contradicts the current point of view being retailed by some White House and Israeli officials: that Israel’s offensive in Lebanon significantly damaged Hezbollah’s ability to wage war, that Israel successfully degraded Hezbollah’s military ability to prevail in a future conflict, and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), once deployed in large numbers in southern Lebanon, were able to prevail over their foes and dictate a settlement favorable to the Israeli political establishment.
Just the opposite is true. From the onset of the conflict to its last operations, Hezbollah commanders successfully penetrated Israel’s strategic and tactical decision-making cycle across a spectrum of intelligence, military and political operations, with the result that Hezbollah scored a decisive and complete victory in its war with Israel.
If you’re a pro-Israel partisan you’ll doubtless dismiss this judgment outright. But you’d find it hard to impeach Alastair Crooke’s credentials:
Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry are the co-directors of Conflicts Forum, a London-based group dedicated to providing an opening to political Islam. Crooke is the former Middle East adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana and served as a staff member of the Mitchell Commission investigating the causes of the second intifada.
Crooke and Perry also note the IDF tactical mistakes which led to the abductions in the first place:
The abductions were, in fact, all too easy: Israeli soldiers near the border apparently violated standing operational procedures, left their vehicles in sight of Hezbollah emplacements, and did so while out of contact with higher-echelon commanders and while out of sight of covering fire…
The abductions marked the beginning of a series of IDF blunders that were compounded by commanders who acted outside of their normal border procedures. Members of the patrol were on the last days of their deployment in the north and their guard was down. Nor is it the case that Hezbollah fighters killed the eight Israelis during their abduction of the two. The eight died when an IDF border commander, apparently embarrassed by his abrogation of standing procedures, ordered armored vehicles to pursue the kidnappers. The two armored vehicles ran into a network of Hezbollah anti-tank mines and were destroyed.
I wonder if with all the so-called investigations underway in Israel to study the lessons of this war whether Israelis will ever hear this short simple analysis of what started the whole mess: IDF negligence.
Crooke and Perry continue with their tale of IDF woe by studying the IDF’s war strategy in the first 72 hours of fighting:
The initial attack on Hezbollah’s marshaling points and major bunker complexes, which took place in the first 72 hours of the war, failed. On July 15, the IAF targeted Hezbollah’s leadership in Beirut. This attack also failed. At no point during the war was any major Hezbollah political figure killed, despite Israel’s constant insistence that the organization’s senior leadership had suffered losses.
According to one US official who observed the war closely, the IAF’s air offensive degraded “perhaps only 7%” of the total military resource assets available to Hezbollah’s fighters in the first three days of fighting and added that, in his opinion, Israeli air attacks on the Hezbollah leadership were “absolutely futile”.
That 7% figure, if it even close to being accurate, is breathtaking when you compare it to the dreck that both Peretz, Olmert and Halutz were peddling at the time, in which they were claiming they’d degraded variously, 33%, 50% or even more of Hezbollah’s fighting capacity. They were also making foolish claims that they were about to or had already destroyed Hezbollah as an effective force.
The article also explains the origin of some of the IDF’s tactical decisions which led to some of the worst civilian massacres. Because the initial strategy had failed, war planners decided to “stretch the target envelope:”
Qana was the result of Olmert’s agreement to “stretch the target envelope”. One US military expert who monitored the conflict closely had this to say of the Qana bombing: “This isn’t really that complicated. After the failure of the initial campaign, IAF planning officers went back through their target folders to see if they had missed anything. When they decided they hadn’t, someone probably stood up and went into the other room and returned with a set of new envelopes of targets in densely populated areas and said, ‘Hey, what about these target envelopes?’ And so they did it.” That is, the bombing of targets “close in” to southern Lebanon population areas was the result of Israel’s failure in the war – not its success.
But the authors do not leave Israel’s political echelon unscathed either:
It now is clear that the Israeli political establishment was shocked by the failure of its forces to accomplish its first military goals in the war – including the degradation of a significant number of Hezbollah arsenals and the destruction of Hezbollah’s command capabilities.
But the Israeli political establishment had done almost nothing to prepare for the worst: the first meeting of the Israeli security cabinet in the wake of the July 12 abduction lasted only three hours. And while Olmert and his security cabinet demanded minute details of the IDF’s plan for the first three days of the war, they failed to articulate clear political goals in the aftermath of the conflict or sketch out a political exit strategy should the offensive fail.
Olmert and the security cabinet violated the first principle of war – they showed contempt for their enemy. In many respects, Olmert and his cabinet were captives of an unquestioned belief in the efficacy of Israeli deterrence. Like the Israeli public, they viewed any questioning of IDF capabilities as sacrilege.
The Israeli intelligence failure during the conflict was catastrophic. It meant that, after the failure of Israel’s air campaign to degrade Hezbollah assets significantly in the first 72 hours of the war, Israel’s chance of winning a decisive victory against Hezbollah was increasingly, and highly, unlikely.
“Israel lost the war in the first three days,” one US military expert said. “If you have that kind of surprise and you have that kind of firepower, you had better win. Otherwise, you’re in for the long haul.”
The second part of the Crooke-Perry report deals with Israel’s ground assault on Lebanon and it doesn’t look much prettier than the material in the first section. One of the most astonishing facts they mention is the disparity of fighting forces on both sides. Israel had committed 20,000 troops to its effort. Hezbollah had nothing near that:
After-battle reports of Hezbollah commanders now confirm that IDF troops never fully secured the border area and Maroun al-Ras was never fully taken. Nor did Hezbollah ever feel the need to call up its reserves, as Israel had done. “The entire war was fought by one Hezbollah brigade of 3,000 troops, and no more,” one military expert in the region said. “The Nasr Brigade fought the entire war. Hezbollah never felt the need to reinforce it.”
If this is a true statement–that with a nearly 7 to 1 military advantage, not to mention its absolute command of the skies using its air force–Israel still failed utterly in achieving any of its military or political objectives, then Israel has suffered a catastrophic military and political defeat in Lebanon with potentially crushing and far-reaching consequences.
The authors also chart a deep chasm between the political echelon of the U.S. government which, publicly at least, was Israel’s biggest booster during the conflict; and the military echelon which was dumbfounded by the ineptitude of the IDF campaign:
“There is a common misperception that the [US] Air Force was thrilled by the Israeli war against Lebanon,” one Middle East expert with access to senior Pentagon officials told us. “They were aghast. They well know the limits of their own power and they know how it can be abused.
“It seemed to them [USAF officers] that Israel threw away the book in Lebanon. This wasn’t surgical, it wasn’t precise, and it certainly wasn’t smart. You can’t just coat a country in iron and hope to win.”
One of the themes the IDF press officers raised with the world press was Israel’s success in identifying and hunting down Hezbollah rocket launchers and their crews immediately on firing a rocket at Israel. But this passage makes clear that the IAF was even failing at this task. This explains why Hezbollah seemingly fired missiles into Israel almost at will–and this despite a ferocious IAF effort to impede them:
The cold, harsh numbers of the war point up the fallacy of the Israeli air and ground campaign. Hezbollah had secreted upwards of 18,000 rockets in its arsenals prior to the conflict. These sites were hardened against Israeli air strikes and easily survived the air campaign. Hezbollah officials calculated that from the time of firing until the IAF was able to identify and deploy fighters to take out the mobile rockets was 90 seconds. Through years of diligent training, Hezbollah rocket teams had learned to deploy, fire and safely cover their mobile launchers in less than 60 seconds, with the result that IAF planes and helicopters (which Israel has in much fewer numbers than it boasts) could not stop Hezbollah’s continued rocket fire at Israel (“Israel is about three helicopters away from a total disaster,” one US military officer commented).
Part 3 of the series chronicles the devastating political fallout brought by Israel’s defeat and Hezbollah’s victory. The analysts note that American Mideast policy is in a shambles, our allies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) won’t even take our phone calls, and that Israel has been shown to its Arab enemies to be a paper tiger. Proof of this may be seen in Condi Rice’s recent Mideast trip in which she seems to have made absolutely no progress whatsoever in advancing U.S. objectives in the region. All she claims to show for her efforts is an Israeli recommitment to honor a Palestinian transit agreement she hammered out last year which Israel never honored to begin with.
There is supposedly a “major” American peace initiative in the works which will be announced shortly. If that is so, her trip offered little in the way of reassurance that this new initiative will augur the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” as she so notoriously said during the last war.
There is only one major portion of this section with which I disagree. The authors are deeply pessimistic about the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in the short or even medium term:
…The Hezbollah victory spells the end of any hope of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the short and medium terms. Even normally “progressive” Israeli political figures undermined their political position with strident calls for more force, more troops and more bombs. In private meetings with his political allies, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas castigated those who cheered on Hezbollah’s victory, calling them “Hamas supporters” and “enemies of Israel”. Abbas is in a far more tenuous position than Mubarak or the two Abdullahs – his people’s support for Hamas continues, as does his slavish agreement with George W Bush, who told him on the sidelines of the United Nations Security Council meeting that he was to end all attempts to form a unity government with his fellow citizens.
I detect in this passage a note of strident pro-Hamas posturing which is largely absent from the rest of the series. If Abbas’ political position is “tenuous,” Hamas’ position amounts to leaning over the precipice. In my opinion, he has consistently outmanuvered Hamas during the current crisis. And to say Abbas’ relationship with Bush is “slavish” seems overstatement to say the least.
I would certainly agree that peace is unlikely with the current Israeli government. But if the U.S. and Europe could ever coordinate their positions and come up with a unified front on the question of peace negotiations, I believe that any government dominated by any party other than Likud would eventually have to acquiesce. Which means that if a Democrat with constructive attitudes toward the Mideast (in other words not a slavish sycophant of Aipac) wins the White House and succeeds in coming up with a common platform with the Europeans and other Quartet members, then a peace agreement is by no means out of the question.
Crooke and Perry retrieve their position somewhat with this far more optimistic suggestion of what Olmert could do overcome the current crisis in confidence in his government and to help achieve peace in the region (if he were up to it):
Israel has proved that in times of crisis, it can shape a creative diplomatic strategy and maneuver deftly to retrieve its position. It has also proved that in the wake of a military defeat, it is capable of honest and transparent self-examination. Israel’s strength has always been its capacity for public debate, even if such debate questions the most sacrosanct institution – the Israel Defense Forces. At key moments in Israel’s history, defeat has led to reflection and not, as now seems likely, an increasingly escalating military offensive against Hamas – the red-headed stepchild of the Middle East – to show just how tough it is.
…There is hope among some in Washington that Olmert will show the political courage to begin the long process of finding peace. That process will be painful, it will involve long and difficult discussions, it may mean a break with the US program for the region. But the US does not live in the region, and Israel does. While conducting a political dialogue with its neighbors might be painful, it will prove far less painful than losing a war in Lebanon.
It’s worth reading the conclusion of their series for its sweeping and breathtaking characterization of the impact Hezbollah’s victory will have in the region and in contemporary Mideast history. Even if you allow for slight hyperbole, the authors’ judgments seem quite sound:
The victory of Hezbollah in its recent conflict with Israel is far more significant than many analysts in the United States and Europe realize. The Hezbollah victory reverses the tide of 1967 – a shattering defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan that shifted the region’s political plates, putting in place regimes that were bent on recasting their own foreign policy to reflect Israeli and US power. That power now has been sullied and reversed, and a new leadership is emerging in the region.
The singular lesson of the conflict may well be lost on the upper echelons of Washington’s and London’s pro-Israel, pro-values, we-are-fighting-for-civilization political elites, but it is not lost in the streets of Cairo, Amman, Ramallah, Baghdad, Damascus or Tehran. It should not be lost among the Israeli political leadership in Jerusalem. The Arab armies of 1967 fought for six days and were defeated. The Hezbollah militia in Lebanon fought for 34 days and won.