The Magazine

The Hezbollah Surprise

What we have here is a failure of intelligence.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By DAN DARLING
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WITH ALL THE DISCUSSION, analysis, commentary, and recrimination that has sur rounded U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq, it is surprising that so few parallels have been drawn to the situation in Lebanon. As in the case of Iraq, it appears there was an intelligence failure of some magnitude. This time, to be sure, it was an underestimate of the size and quality of the enemy's arsenal. But the sophistication of Hezbollah's Iranian-built missiles, stockpiled since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, appears to have "caught the United States and Israel off guard," the New York Times reports, "and officials in both countries are just now learning the extent to which the militant group has succeeded in getting weapons from Iran and Syria."

From the Iranian variants of the Chinese Silkworm missile to more conventional Syrian-made warheads--innovatively filled with ball bearings so as to maximize damage to humans and property--Hezbollah's rockets have proved more formidable than expected. Moreover, combat between Hezbollah and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon has revealed the degree to which the terrorist organization improved the abilities of its irregular troops--to the point where the reported casualty ratios released by the Israeli government and various media outlets suggest that Hezbollah's fighters are more capable than the vast majority of conventional Arab armies.

Hezbollah owes all these improvements to generous support from Syria and Iran. What does it say about the state of Western intelligence that these nations were able to provide such support, including sophisticated missiles and training, without our knowledge?

One thing it points to is a pattern of intelligence failures--or of an intrinsic inability of the intelligence community to perform at the level policymakers expect. In the post-Cold War era alone, numerous examples can be cited, including the failure to predict the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the advanced status of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time of that invasion, the successes of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, the extent of Libya's weapons of mass destruction programs, the activities of the Abdul Qadeer Khan proliferation network, and so on. In light of this history, the overestimation of Iraq's WMD program at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion stands out as an unusual exception to the recent rule, which has been one of underestimating our opponents. In deed, as more information has become available regarding the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, it appears increasingly clear that both are further along than U.S. intelligence initially assessed them to be.

If there is one productive development from the fighting in Lebanon, it would be the insight it has given us into the views of the Iranian leadership on a number of topics, ranging from terrorism to their willingness to deliver sophisticated weaponry to nonstate actors. And all of it appears to add up to a disturbing portrait that the United States and its allies will need to factor into their calculations of how to deal with Iran.

With regard to terrorism, Iran appears quite willing to use Hezbollah as its proxy, continuing to support the group with advanced weapons, training, and some unknown number of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel from the elite Qods Force unit. All of this suggests that the Iranian leadership has embraced revolutionary hostility toward Israel.

However the Iranian regime regards its economic and political ties with European governments, it appears that these ties are of no consequence when it comes to persuading the Tehran regime to end its support of one of the world's most infamous terrorist groups. Indeed, Iran appears to have boosted rather than cut back its support for Hezbollah in recent years. It's hard, therefore, to see a rational basis on which engagement with Iran can be expected to deter it from employing terrorism as a tool of statecraft, particularly if the Islamic Republic suffers no consequences from its role in the current fighting in Lebanon.