Saturday, August 19, 2006

A war for neurotics

Now it's all over, what was all the shooting about?

To answer that question, we'd first need to know something of each side's aims. Hezbollah's were reasonably clear, at least as far as the decision to take the two soldiers prisoner went: put pressure on the Israelis to release their remaining Lebanese prisoners, and not incidentally demonstrate they were still Gangster Number One. After all, Hamas had managed to pull off the capture of Gideon Shalit and the destruction of a tank only days before, so something needed doing to maintain respect.

What they didn't reckon with, basing their perceptual framework on Ariel Sharon's 2004 decision to exchange prisoners, was the Israeli freakout that followed. Once that began, Hezbollah's aims were to hold on to as much as possible whilst keeping their army in being, and score prestige triumphs like rocketing Haifa harbour and flying drones into Israel. Simple enough.

What were the Israeli aims, though? Just get the soldiers back? Negotiation would have done that. And, in the end, it doesn't seem to have worried them very much. The Israelis seem remarkably unconcerned that two of their soldiers are left in Hezbollah hands - still! Demolish Hezbollah? Well, they seem to have liked the idea. But, if you look at the situation maps, their actions do not correspond to such grandiose goals. Quite simply, they did not go very far into Lebanon, ever - despite the talk of going to the Litani, they only went there as a token presence. Secure the north from rockets? This would have meant going well beyond the Litani, perhaps to the Awali river line, which would have put the great bulk of the rockets out of range for as long as they stayed. But they spent so much time talking of a two mile deep security zone - which would help not a jot.

There are a couple of explanations. One is that they would have marched to the Litani but Hezbollah (and the Shia Amal, and the Communists) beat them. I'm not sure. They certainly put up an impressive defence, but whether they could have prevented Tsahal from breaking through if it had been bent on doing so is another matter. In all, four Israeli divisions were employed, and at no time was a manoeuvre bigger than brigade strength launched except perhaps at the very end. Another is that the Israelis were trying to avoid the 1978 scenario, where Hezbollah just retires behind the Litani in an affair of outposts, by trying to draw them on to their positions in the south. Another is that they were conflicted and unsure of aims, and that there was effectively no overall strategy. If 1982 was a war for psychotics, with its obsessive blitz ever further north and climatic massacre, this was one for neurotics.

The drawing-on tactic is possible, I suppose, but for an army as tank-oriented as the Israelis against an enemy made up of small mobile ATGW teams, very unfavourable. It would have amounted to parking a lot of tanks in southern Lebanon as targets. It might have had some appeal to a command torn between the will to wound and the fear to strike, though, unwilling to plunge north but under pressure to confront the enemy. It might also have appealed to the airpower theorist, Halutz, as a way of flushing Hezbollah fighters so his aircraft could attack them - but three-man rocket teams are not good targets, and the decision not to charge north meant that they wouldn't collect at the bridges like good little sheep. (This may be the result of learning the wrong lesson from Kosovo.)

That the IDF simply didn't have a strategy is perhaps supported by the fact a key commander, the head of the northern command, was sacked. Everyone will now draw whatever conclusions they want from the war - the 4th Generation Warfare crowd will point to the rocketing of the Haifa port and the village reserve groups with their rockets as more evidence for their side, the neo-cons will cry Iran, the Quai d'Orsay will positively purr, and the Lebanese will in all probability conclude that the more tank-hunters between them and the Israelis, the better.

I prefer the Colonel's analysis, which is that Hezbollah is just at the turning point from a guerrilla force to an army in Maoist revolutionary war theory. They are known to have studied Vietnam extensively, after all. For the laughs, meanwhile, Col. Lang described the Hezbollah first line of defence as the Tabouleh Line, with the next being the Shawarma Line. I disagree. I think the talk of bunkers and tunnel complexes is overrated - every front-line account I've seen speaks of small groups of tank hunters shooting and moving, hiding out in the open, and practically all the Israeli losses came from them. It's more accurate to say that Hezbollah drew the Israelis into a hoummus.

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