Saturday, July 22, 2006

War is Focused Violence

War is focused violence. Israel has forgotten this.

As early as July 12th, I wrote that Israel was screwing the pooch on their reaction to Gaza and then to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Peters agrees that Israel is screwing up and risks losing. He advocates a fast and powerful ground invasion to clear out Hizbollah.

Maybe ten days ago this would have been reasonable advice if Israel had also refrained from bombing civilian infrastructure in Lebanon and routinely going after Hizbollah targets away from the border.

But with Israel only sending in a few battalions into Lebanon today while bombing too widely, they are screwing up in a remarkably thorough fashion. Too many bombs to avoid condemnation and yet not enough to destroy Hizbollah from the air. Too few troops to actually defeat Hizbollah in Lebanon but too many to avoid looking like an invasion.

With over ten thousand rockets in south Lebanon, over 6,000 gunmen, deep bunkers, the support of Lebanon's Shias, and the backing of Syria and Iran, Hizbollah is too deeply entrenched in the region to be defeated by a high profile attack that kills the civilians Hizbollah embraces. I don't care if it is done by air or on the ground. This is not a mission to be done quickly.

At this point, after the Israeli mistakes that have precluded world patience with Israel attacking Hizbollah effectively from this point forward, I don't know how Israel wins this round.

They might have to settle for tearing up Hamas in Gaza while Lebanon distracts the world's focus. And wind down the attacks on Hizbollah that can't beat them. If the attacks on Hizbollah had been done massively on the ground from day one while keeping air power tightly focused on supporting the troops, this might have done some damage to Hizbollah. Maybe. But it is too late. By the time Israel gathers troops, nobody will be willing to give Israel time to strike on the ground.

Alternately, if Israel had followed up their buzzing of Assad's palace with aerial attacks on Syrian forces in western Syria and a blockade of Syria's ports, it would have gone to the source of supplies while avoiding Lebanese casualties. Air power and artillery could have been used against rocket launch sites and special forces could have been used to target Hizbollah forces. Targetted assassinations of Hizbollah leaders would have helped.

So Israel needs to salvage a partial win in this round by focusing on Gaza and crippling Hamas; minimize their debacle in Lebanon by doing some damage to Hizbollah and declaring it sufficient to end the attacks; responding to any rocket attacks by hitting back with artillery; going after Hizbollah leaders with spooks, missiles, and special forces; demanding some international force for south Lebanon and the return of their soldiers; and preparing for the next round which will come because Hizbollah is emboldened.

I don't know what Israel can do practically speaking to get their three soldiers back. It has gone so far beyond a fight over their fates.

And in the next round, Israel needs to use focused violence on Hizbollah. And possibly Syria. But don't target Lebanese targets. I have no doubt that Israel is not trying to kill Lebanese, but even precision air power is a blunt instrument when the enemy hides among civilians. I want Israel to defeat Hizbollah and their enemies. Israel is our friend. But they have screwed up this crisis.

Learn and prepare for the next round. Don't worry, with our enemies it won't take long for the next round.

UPDATE: Marian in Germany emailed me with an assessment by PINR. This notes the main problems of Hizbollah being deeply enmeshed with Lebanon's Shias, making uprooting Hizbollah difficult. Now, unlike a lot of American liberals who believe that the difficulty of defeating an enemy quite determined to fight means you should just not even bother to fight back ("you'll only make it worse and recruit more enemy"), I think it means you should fight even harder to kill the enemy. Israel could do this as they realize the scope of the problem.

PINR notes another major problem, however, that the civilian Lebanese casualties that result from hitting a target surrounded by civilians increases pressure on Israel to stop fighting before achieving results that are within spitting distance of victory.

PINR expects Israel to attempt to harm Hizbollah and try to get a negotiated withdrawal of their forces that enter Lebanon and the entry of a force capable of confronting Hizbollah into southern Lebanon.

PINR also notes another factor that I've noted, that the longer this goes on the bigger the chance of escalation. While escalation is not necessarily bad, if Syrian power behind Hizbollah is weakened and thus weakens Hizbollah (Israel won't be going after Iran); unplanned escalation makes it more likely that the escalation won't be focused.

These are all pretty consistent with my expectations.

On the other hand, Strategypage reminds me that I shouldn't under-estimate Israel. I agree. I'm predicting that Israel can at best come out with a win against Hamas and an operational defeat of Hizbollah while suffering a strategic defeat to Hizbollah and their patrons. That is, Hizbollah is undoubtedly going to be hurt but they won't think their losses are too high to gain a propaganda victory against Israel by surviving; and Syria and Iran will like seeing Israel and America pummeled in the press. And Iraqi Shia discomfort with the attacks on Lebanon's Shias will be welcomed in Iran and Syria. But I may be too pessimistic given the track records as Strategypage notes. Still, I don't think so.

However, Strategypage notes two things that makes me a little more optimistic that Israel can get a decent battlefield victory that may pave the way for a more complete victory in the next round. First:

In addition to its guerrilla fighters, Hizbollah has a couple of brigades armed and trained for conventional operations. These may be the best trained "regular" troops in the region, barring those that Israel isn't likely to fight (Jordan, Egypt, Turkey), and it's believed that Hizbollah hopes that they could take on Israeli troops in a conventional battle. To that end, sending Israeli ground forces into southern Lebanon is intended to draw Hizbollah's conventional forces out, in anticipation of an invasion. In that way, Hizbollah might lay its conventional forces open to air and artillery attack, and probably selective ground and commando action.

Hizbollah was foolish to organize conventional units. If Israel goes in to fight them, Israel will be able to kill a lot. Hizbollah plays to Israel's strengths if they really welcome such a clash and aren't just spouting bravado for the public. This makes Israel's limited ground incursions make some sense rather than seem futile to me.


By causing a war with Israel, the Lebanese Shia see an opportunity to unite all Lebanese behind them. Unfortunately, the Christian and Sunni Lebanese, while angry with the Israeli air campaign, are not enthusiastic about dying to maintain Hizbollah power. Israeli negotiations with the Lebanese agree on one thing; Hizbollah has to go. Lebanon cannot be free as long as Hizbollah maintains its own army, and controls a third of the country. The expulsion of the Syrian army last year was wildly popular, except among the Shia. The Israelis are waiting for public opinion among the Lebanese Christians and Sunnis to go against Hizbollah. This is why there has been no large scale movement of Israeli troops into southern Lebanon. Small units (no more than battalion strength, under a thousand troops) are going in to destroy Hizbollah bunker complexes that cannon be destroyed from the air.

Non-Shia Lebanese may be more patient than I assumed from press reports about Israel's aerial aasault. This would give Israel a little more time to damage Hizbollah.

So Israel may actually be focusing their violence better than I can see. But this operational focus is obscured by the lack of focus at the strategic level in hitting Lebanese civilian infrastructure which does put pressure on Israel to stop fighting before winning at least something.

We shall see. I want Israel to beat Hizbollah. But I don't want to lose Lebanon in the process or strengthen Iran's hand in Iraq amongst radicalized Shias under Sadr and the Badr thugs.