How to do better in the next war?: Their only thought

August 17, 2006

In News

By Reuven Pedatzur

The United States’ defeat in the Vietnam war started becoming evident when Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, started using body counts as an alternative to military victories. When he could not point to achievements on the battlefield, Westmoreland would send a daily report to Washington of the number of Vietcong soldiers his forces had killed.

In the past few weeks, the Israel Defense Forces has also adopted the body count approach. When the largest and strongest army in the Middle East clashes for more than two weeks with 50 Hezbollah fighters in Bint Jbail and does not bring them to their knees, the commanders are left with no choice but to point to the number of dead fighters the enemy has left behind. It can be assumed that Bint Jbail will turn into a symbol of the second Lebanon war. For the Hezbollah fighters it will be remembered as their Stalingrad, and for us it will be a painful reminder of the IDF’s defeat.

Ze’ev Schiff wrote in Haaretz on August 11 that we had “gotten a slap.” It seems that “knockout” would be a more appropriate description. This is not a mere military defeat. This is a strategic failure whose far-reaching implications are still not clear. And like the boxer who took the blow, we are still lying dazed on the ground, trying to understand what happened to us. Just like the Six-Day War led to a strategic change in the Middle East and established Israel’s status as the regional power, the second Lebanon war may bring about the opposite. The IDF’s failure is eroding our national security’s most important asset – the belligerent image of this country, led by a vast, strong and advanced army capable of dealing our enemies a decisive blow if they even try to bother us. This war, it soon transpired, was about “awareness” and “deterrence.” We lost the fight for both.

The concept failed again

It does not matter one bit what the IDF’s true capability is. There is also no importance to the assertions that the IDF used merely a small part of its force and that its arsenal still contains advanced weapons that did not come into play. What really matters is the image of the IDF – and in fact of Israel – in the eyes of our adversaries in the region.

And herein lies the most serious failure of this war. In Damascus, Gaza, Tehran and Cairo, too, people are looking with amazement at the IDF that could not bring a tiny guerrilla organization (1,500 fighters according to the military intelligence chief, and a few thousand according to other sources) to its knees for more than a month, the IDF that was defeated and paid a heavy price in most of its battles in southern Lebanon. And most serious of all: an IDF that has not neutralized Hezbollah’s ability to fire rockets and keep more than 1 million Israeli citizens sitting in shelters for more than four weeks. What happened to this mighty army, which after a month was not able to advance more than a few kilometers into Lebanon? wonder many of those who are planning their next wars against Israel.

Israel’s deterrent power was based on the recognition by the enemy that it would pay an extremely heavy price if it attacked Israel. For example, Syria has not fired hundreds of missiles at the Israeli homefront – even during times of war – because it fears a harsh Israeli attack on Damascus and other important Syrian towns. But when more than 3,000 rockets are fired at the Galilee, Haifa and Hadera without Israel demanding that someone pay, Israel’s deterrence is damaged. At the next opportunity, someone in Damascus may decide to fire rockets at Tel Aviv to push forward a diplomatic process, since Israel did not only fail to react severely to the rockets fired from Lebanon but also was forced to agree to a UN arrangement that leaves the rocket stockpile in Hezbollah’s hands.

The Agranat Commission gave a negative connotation to the term “concept” in the context of military intelligence. The commission of inquiry that now hopefully will be set up will quickly conclude that on the eve of the second Lebanon war, the IDF – and consequently policy makers – were working with two mistaken concepts. First, over the past six years, Israelis came to believe a large-scale fight against Hezbollah would not be necessary: Any military actions in southern Lebanon would be limited and short. Second, if a war arose against Hezbollah, the IDF would dismantle the organization within a few days, break its command backbone and end the fighting under conditions favorable to Israel.

And this is how we entered the war. The army led the prime minister and his cabinet to believe that the air force would annihilate Hezbollah’s fighting capability within several days and that thereafter a new situation would prevail in Lebanon. On the basis of these promises, Ehud Olmert set ambitious objectives for the war, which of course were unattainable.

Just as before the Yom Kippur war, there was a destructive combination of arrogance, boastfulness, euphoria and contempt for the enemy. The generals were so certain of the air force’s success that they did not prepare an alternative. And when it became clear after about one week that Hezbollah was not disintegrating and that its ability to fire rockets had not been significantly thwarted, the IDF found itself in a state of acute distress and embarrassment. This is the reason for the hesitancy in using force and the lack of determination in the use of the ground forces.

The commission of inquiry will have to examine how the army entered the war without formulating alternative operations or plans to end the war. The failure of the government lies in its adoption of the army’s proposal without examining its logic, chances of success or alternatives. The decision-making process that led to the war once again revealed the most serious defect in the formation of national security policy. Since the establishment of the state, no government has had the good sense to set up professional advisory bodies that could assist it in dealing with IDF proposals, or at least to examine them seriously. As in all the other conflicts, the army and not the government decided what Israel should do in Lebanon. The National Security Council – whose job this is precisely – was not asked to look over the IDF’s plans and their implications, nor was it asked to provide alternatives.

The missing command

The arrogance and the overconfidence that characterized the top brass left the home front unprotected. If it was clear that the air force would destroy the rocket launch pads within a few days, why call on the residents of the north to prepare the air raid shelters and stockpile food? We know the outcome: More than one million people sat for more than one month in stinking shelters, some of them without food or minimal conditions.

In this context, the inquiry commission should look into the home front command. Millions of shekels were invested in this command. A major general, brigadiers general, colonels and many other officers and soldiers man this command. And what was its contribution to the war? Warning notices broadcast over the radio and televisions about alarms and sirens. That’s it. For more than a month, the entire command made do with drafting public notices about seeking shelter and staying in interior rooms. Where was this command over the past six years? Was it not its task to examine and check whether the shelters were satisfactory?

And of course, the intelligence. Once again there were surprises and failures, some of which were based on the mistaken concept of Hezbollah’s capacities. The militia’s success in surprising an IDF patrol and abducting two soldiers – the catalyst for the war – stems from a military intelligence failure. IDF intelligence did not assess correctly Hezbollah’s fighting capability, did not know about the tunnels next to the organization’s strongholds, and erred in its assessments of the deployment inside Bint Jbail, and there were many more other intelligence failures.

The navy’s intelligence failed because it did not know about the Iranian land-to-sea missiles in Hezbollah’s hands, and its assessments about Hezbollah’s ability to fire rockets were mistaken. Hezbollah’s successful handling of anti-tank missiles also revealed an intelligence failure that resembles to a large extent that of the 1973 war. The Patriot missile batteries stationed near Haifa and Safed were announced by the IDF with much fanfare. The wide media coverage given to these deployments was supposed to quiet residents’ fears. Since then we have not heard a single word about that wonderful defense system. As far as is known, not even one attempt was made to knock down missiles fired at Haifa and Hadera. The commission of inquiry will also have to deal with the army’s decisions about anti-missile defense. Billions of dollars were invested in the defense systems to combat missiles, but this was unapparent when it came to the test. In addition, the army’s decision to stop developing the Nautilus – a laser-based anti-Katyusha defense system – must be examined.

The state allocates some 11 billion dollars annually for the defense budget. Almost 15 percent of the GNP is devoted to security. (The official figure is 10 percent, but this does not include all the investments in security issues). But when the reservists are called up, they discover that they lack basic equipment: flak jackets, helmets, vehicles and even stretchers. Entire units were forced to fight more than 24 hours without food or water. Where did the money go? This will have to be examined by the commission of inquiry. The height of the chutzpah is the hints by senior officers that the dearth of equipment is due to the defense budget cuts. This should be the chance to break the myth about these budget cuts: Not only was the defense budget not cut in the past decade, it actually grew during the years 2002 and 2005. Israel allocates to security more of its total resources than any other democracy in the world (15 times more than Japan and three times more than the U.S.). It should be checked whether there is justification for this.

The Yom Kippur war is remembered as a seminal event that damaged the public’s trust in the army. Quite a few years passed before this trust was restored. It is still too early to assess whether the second Lebanon war will be remembered as the turning point at which the public awakes from the illusion about the unlimited might of the Israeli military force.