Friday, July 28, 2006

Random thoughts on the Mideast crisis 2 -- Unexpected Hezbollah resistance?

A few thoughts on the “difficulties” Israel is having according to media reports. The IDF is of course denying that the level of resistance is unexpected. However, clearly the fighting has been very tough, much tougher at least than most people outside of the IDF expected. The question is, why has it taken the IDF over a week now to secure two small towns in Lebanon when they made it to Beirut in 4 days in 1982? There are, I think, 3 reasons for this. First, as many reporters have recently discovered, Hezbollah is not your typical Arab fighting force. Second, this is the early stages of the conflict when, as is usually the case, counters to the enemy’s new tactics must be developed. Lastly, and probably most importantly, this is small operation that is limiting Israel’s capabilities while enhancing Hezbollah’s. The fact that despite all of these advantages Hezbollah is taking a beating simply shows how much more capable the Israeli soldier is.

The Arabs are almost in a class of their own when it comes to military ineffectiveness. I believe it was Moshe Dayan who when asked how other countries could replicate Israel’s stunning military prowess replied simply, “Fight Arabs.” The primary problem in Arab armies is a lack of professionalism and competence in their junior commissioned and non-commissioned officers, the backbone of any military force. Hezbollah's advantage is that it has not been trained by Arabs like the PLO, but by Iranians. While Iranians are not the greatest soldiers in the world, they are far superior to the Arabs. During the Iran-Iraq war, despite being completely outclassed by the Iraqis in firepower and maneuver capability, the Iranians time and time again defeated the Iraqis on the battlefield with simplistic yet effective tactics. The added dimension of Persian professionalism is enough to make Hezbollah a much more capable force than any other (with the possible exception of the British trained Jordanian Arab Legion in 1948 and 1967) that the Israelis have faced. Again, not the S.S. style supermen the press is making them out to be, but still a tougher opponent than just about any Arab army the Israelis have faced before.

In the early stages of any conflict it is often the case that many mistakes are made. Israel is no stranger to this reality. In 1973, Israeli armor raced forward immediately after the Egyptians attacked to fight like it was 1967 when most of the battles in the Sinai resembled naval battles with columns of tanks duking it out at long range. The Israelis didn’t understand the effect that the large quantities of the Soviet AT-3 “Sagger” anti-tank missiles the Egyptians had purchased in between the wars would have. The unsupported Israeli tanks drove into ambushes all along the front. In 2 days the Israelis lost 200 out of 300 tanks in the Sinai. By day 3 or 4 the Israelis figured out how to counter the Egyptian anti-tank teams and were able in a matter of weeks to relatively easily throw the Egyptians back across the Suez Canal. In 1982 the Israelis sent 4 large columns into Lebanon. They planned for a quick operation with the PLO or Syrians guarding the roads and passes. Instead they were instantly ambushed by infantry and even tanks positioned on the hills over the roads. The Syrians had fought for a year in Lebanon without ever figuring out how to deal with this tactic. The Israelis took about a day to realize they would have to advance slowly with infantry teams in the hills shadowing the armor columns.

In both cases the Israelis initially took heavy losses but quickly devised countermeasures that negated the effectiveness of these tactics. It is the same today. The Israeli offensive is so far about a week old, though only the last 3 or 4 days have seen operations of any size. It is not surprising then that the Israelis would have lost several tanks and a dozen or so soldiers to Hezbollah’s new tactics. By now though, the Israelis should have developed new tactics of their own to counter Hezbollah’s. It’s too early to say it’s a trend, but we can already see some changes in the casualty totals. On the
26th the IDF lost 8 soldiers to Hezbollah’s roughly 20 dead in the town of Bint Jbail while on the 28th the Israelis suffered no dead in a battle in Bint Jbail that saw 26 Hezbollah killed. This is why I expected the Israelis to invade initially with a brigade size force (around 2,000-3,000 soldiers) for a few days to discover Hezbollah’s new tricks.

Unfortunately, Hezbollah being a more formidable opponent and the nature of early fighting in a new war are not the only cause of Israel’s apparent troubles. Israel’s superb officer corps seems to be fixing any problems with their tactics. However, they can’t do anything about bad operational and strategic decisions from higher up. While the current IDF offensive is definitely causing significant casualties to Hezbollah (so far at least 200-300 dead and 2-3 times that wounded) it is not doing it quickly or effectively enough. The problem is that the Israelis have pushed a single brigade into a roughly 2 X 4 mile rectangle of southern Lebanon. This leaves no room for the operational maneuver at which Israel excels. The Israelis soldiers are being forced into frontal assaults on prepared Hezbollah positions. Hezbollah is also undoubtedly reinforcing their positions around this rectangle with fighters from other parts of southern Lebanon. In effect the Israelis are fighting Hezbollah with the type frontal attritional strategy that the Arabs or Soviets would use. It will work given enough time and given morale that won’t break under the higher than necessary casualties. The problem for Olmert is that Israel doesn’t have enough time and the best armies tend to crack under such a strategy no matter how successful it is (for example, at the Battle of Verdun the German army succeeded in its mission, killing more French than they lost, but good soldiers don’t like being used in such a manner and it lead to the fall of Falkenheyn as head of the German army). The Israeli ground
commanders are calling for a bigger offensive that will necessarily include maneuver rather than a continuation of the current attritional strategy.

These are the main reasons I think Israel is experiencing higher than anticipated casualties. This casualty bump will in time, if not already, decline. Over time, as Hezbollah’s core cadres are eliminated and the Israelis push past their prepared defensives, their effectiveness will drop. Hezbollah’s new tactics have probably already lost their effect as the far more capable Israelis find ways to defeat them. The last part is up to Olmert. He can continue the strategy of trading 1 Israeli for x number of Hezbollah, expand the offensive as the army wants to so as to get it over with quicker and at a better kill ratio, or he can pull back the ground forces and return to the casualty free (for the Israelis and Hezbollah) air campaign. At any rate, given the Olmert’s decisions and the nature of war, the casualties and tough fighting in southern Lebanon is nothing surprising.


  1. Hi Jarod,
    I read your last 3 posts and liked your analysis very much. I also felt awkward by the seemingly slow progress the Israelis make in South Lebanon. I also see some hesitance from the higher echelons of power in Israel.
    Will keep tuned to your blog! Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Marinov, glad you like the analysis. Well you've read the posts so you can see I've been pretty concerned about the slow pace also. I only hope I'm not wrong and there is something more fundamentally wrong than just incompetence and bad operational decisions from on high going on.