Crossroads at the Litani

As its tanks file back from the Litani River, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) joins the club of advanced military forces that have failed against non-state enemies. It’s a growing fraternity that already includes France, Britain, India, the USSR, and, of course, the United States. What happens next, however, is more interesting than the loss itself.

In the near term, Israelis can be forgiven some pessimism.

They will have to expect that Hezbollah will reconstitute. Given the level of destruction Israel has wreaked on non-Shiite targets, it is a good bet that some new Hezbollah supporters will be Sunni, Druze, or even Christian. The Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Lebanon has already convened a religious conference that condemned Israeli “aggression” and praised the resistance.

Because these non-state groups—and only these groups—have successfully waged war on Israel, and, by continuing the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the West, they are gaining legitimacy with the Arab street.

This legitimacy comes at the expense of existing Arab state governments because these governments are seen as de facto allies of Israel: they aren’t going to confront the IDF and they keep non-state resistance organizations under a tight leash. If popular sentiment continues to swing towards Hezbollah and the other resistance groups, some Arab governments will be overthrown. As the foreign minister of Qatar recently lamented, “The street is not with us.”

Legends will arise to inspire and sustain this new generation of fighters. In place of “Remember the Alamo!” it will be “Remember Aitaroun!” Muslim children had been taught the tales of heroic figures, from Khalid ibn al-Walid, who led 7th century Arab armies during multiple conquests, to Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders. Now they will have contemporaries to emulate.

Perhaps most worrying of all, after some 60 years, an effective opponent to the IDF has finally evolved. The Israelis have fought the Arabs so long that they have violated an ancient rule of strategy: Don’t train your enemies. The Lycurgan Law of Sparta explicitly warned against repeated attacks on the same enemy. It served them well for centuries, but when Sparta flouted this rule against emerging rival Thebes, it lost so decisively at Leuctra (371 B.C.) that it never recovered.

On the other hand, none of this has to prove fatal.

In the arena of strictly military issues, Israel should come out fine after some hard self-examination. Tactically, the war was no great surprise. Advancing armies have always had problems against dug-in and tenacious defenders armed with modern weaponry. But well-prepared forces know how to deal with this situation—the Marines did take Iwo Jima—and the IDF can recover its competence.

Strategically, there was also nothing new. Country-wide bombing campaigns have never delivered on their promises. Kosovo, which the IDF took as its inspiration, dragged on 76 days longer than its advertised three and ended only when NATO cobbled together a ground threat and Russia pulled the rug out from under Milosevic.

Whether Israel will emulate the United States, which absorbed the lessons of Vietnam, or the USSR, which did not long survive Afghanistan, will depend on how well they solve higher-level problems:

• Israel must get over its fixation with state opponents. It now needs neighbors who can control the non-state groups that are its real nemeses. In particular, the Palestinians either need to be formed into a state of the type that Israel can deter or easily defeat, or they need to be given to such a state.

• Israel must also abandon the idea that war is a play in some rational chess game of states. One move they should foreswear immediately is the notion of using acts of war to “send signals.” They’ve been sending signals since 1949, and anybody interested in receiving them already did long ago. In any case, it should be clear by now that military force is more often effective when kept as a threat.

• Finally, when Israel must show the knife, it needs a more sophisticated military doctrine than attrition warfare. It’s very difficult to win a war of attrition against groups that espouse martyrdom. And even when it is successful, the resulting death and destruction are certain to create new enemies. Oddly, an Israeli historian and strategist, Martin van Creveld, wrote the seminal work on non-state/”fourth generation” warfare, The Transformation of War. The Israeli leadership might dust it off.

To some degree, these three points apply to the United States. We also run an immediate risk with our smallish (135,000) occupation force isolated in Iraq, and every day we stay, we’re rolling the dice against longer odds. Iraq is a country of 27 million people, 60 percent of them Shiites who were thrilled about Hezbollah’s victory. It is not fortuitous that our supply lines from Kuwait run for hundreds of miles though predominantly Shiite provinces.

Chet Richards writes for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. He is a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and the author of Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead.