The recent exchange of fire between the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces troops is a reminder that Israel’s northern border has been relatively quiet these last five years, or ever since the 2006 war that Israel fought with Hezbollah. Five years ago, on July 12, a Hezbollah ambush set off the 34-day conflict that has loomed large over the region ever since. In the war’s immediate aftermath, many outside observers hailed Hezbollah as the winner.
However, five years later our understanding of the war is different. Israel, despite its many blunders—political, diplomatic, and military—and despite the sacrifice of 121 soldiers and the loss of 44 civilians, comes out looking much better than it did back then. Deterrence has been re-established and in spite of operations against Hezbollah targets, like the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, attributed to Israel, the border is quieter than ever. The five-year anniversary provides an opportunity to reexamine the conflict, and what others may learn from it, including American officials.
Reservists from the 91st Division’s C Company were feeling good that July morning. It was the last day of their deployment, and the infantrymen—students and professionals, fathers and husbands in civilian life—were looking forward to getting home. Though there had been warnings of infiltration attempts in the area, the routine morning patrol left the company base without the standard briefing; after all, they were only hours away from swapping their olive green uniforms for jeans and shorts. Their relaxed attitude had deadly consequences. As the patrol’s two Humvees rounded a bend on the Israel-Lebanon border road near Moshav Zar’it, Hezbollah fighters waiting in a prepared position opened fire at the vehicles with RPGs, killing five and capturing two, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Already engaged in Operation Summer Rains in Gaza after the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit two weeks before, Israel decided to respond with force. Though able to achieve some initial successes, including knocking out most of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range rockets, the IDF proved unable to slow the rain of short-range rockets on northern Israel. For most of the war, Israeli chief of staff Dan Halutz introduced ground forces reluctantly, sending them to fight urban battles only kilometers from the border, only to repeatedly relinquish captured territory by withdrawing immediately. Though Israel managed to kill hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, it captured very few prisoners. In short, the IDF underperformed.
The political leadership did considerably worse. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared unrealistic war aims—return of the kidnapped soldiers, expulsion of Hezbollah from the area, and fulfillment of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon and calling for the deployment of the Lebanese army in all of southern Lebanon. But by leaving fulfillment of so many of the war’s aims in enemy hands, Olmert gave Hezbollah leverage over Israel’s ability to claim victory. It was hardly a surprise, then, when after the ceasefire was declared, Hezbollah’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah declared that it was Hezbollah who won the war.
Despite the initial backing Israel received from America, Europe, and many Arab states, the lack of progress in the war and mounting civilian casualties in Lebanon caused this rare international support to dissipate. Israel’s failure to slow the katyusha fire or present a coherent plan for victory caused the U.S. to push for a negotiated settlement.
The perception of failure reverberated at home as much as it did in foreign capitals. By failing to defeat Hezbollah decisively on the ground or to achieve the stated war aims, the IDF let the Israeli public decide it was defeated. Israeli media promoted this narrative after the war effort began to sputter. For instance, there was the story of Paratrooper Battalion 890. On its way out of Bint Jbeil, the battalion received intelligence on an elite Hezbollah force on the attack, and prepared an ambush that killed 26 Hezbollah guerrillas without losing a single soldier. The Ma’ariv headline the next day read simply, “The Ground Forces left Bint Jbeil”.
In hindsight, the sources of Israel’s frustration in the war seem obvious. After years of fighting Palestinian terrorists, patrolling the territories, and transferring money from defense to domestic ministries, the IDF lost its fighting edge. This was especially true of the reservists, as the government slashed their training budget drastically. The IDF adopted “Kela” in 2003, a multi-year spending plan involving painful cuts. The IDF closed entire units and released 6,000 regular army personnel. Only a month and a half after approving the plan, the government slashed another NIS (New Israeli Shekel) 500 million from the IDF budget, leading to further reductions in reserve call-ups, training, and equipment.
The drop in training was especially severe. By 2006, the IDF training budget was only half of what it had been in 2001. Cuts in reserve training were even more severe, dropping by 70 percent. In fact, in 2003, the reserve training budget temporarily dropped to zero, and training simply did not take place.
The skills of the regular army suffered as well. Instead of adhering to the pre-2000 schedule of deploying for four months, then training as a brigade for four months, units performed yearlong tours in the West Bank and Gaza, rarely training between deployments. The lack of preparation showed itself in the fighting. Combined and joint operations were often ineffective.
Perhaps the most salient example showing the deteriorated state of combined operations was the August 11-13 battle at Wadi Saluki. The commander of the 401st Armored Brigade, Col. Motti Kidor, ordered the 9th Battalion to cross the Saluki River, then spearhead a drive west to the coast. To reach the river, the battalion had to traverse exposed ground dominated by surrounding villages. Battalion commander Lt. Col. Effie Defrin called in an artillery smoke screen to conceal his advance, but the smoke screen, improperly deployed, dissipated after a few minutes. Defrin also expected an engineering battalion to prepare his route, but before the tanks could advance, the engineers were withdrawn without finishing their work.
The route Defrin took cut him off from radio communication with a Nahal infantry brigade tasked with protecting his forces from the overlooking heights. Moreover, the infantrymen seemed not to grasp fully that their mission was to protect the armored advance, which came under withering anti-tank fire from Hezbollah fighters hidden on the ridges above.
Even though Kidor and Nahal commander Mickey Edelstein established headquarters in the same house, their coordination was minimal at best, and as a result, Edelstein did not know the tanks were under attack and out of touch. The Saluki crossing cost 11 dead and 50 wounded. “I never imagined,” said a general at a post-war briefing on the battle, “that the army’s performance was so shoddy.”
Trendy, complicated ideas introduced into the IDF also left their mark on Israel’s 2006 performance. Innovative ideas are exciting to the military, but not all innovation is helpful. In the IDF, Gen. Shimon Naveh, director of the IDF’s Operational Theory Research Institute from 1995-2005, introduced innovative, exciting ideas about Operational Art, and those who refused to buy into them were marginalized. Naveh tried to change the way IDF officers conceived of their operations, applying ideas and terms from literary theory, psychology, and postmodern French philosophy to military art. He assigned his disciples books like A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by the French post-structuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Using their theory, Naveh crafted a framework for commanders to make swift decisions in the constantly changing battlefield environment. "I tried to extricate us from the Western separation between practice and theory,” explains Naveh. “This hero, the commander, the operative person, lives in a permanently coalescing space. He needs a theory in order to think critically about the object of his observation, and the moment he acts, he changes the world, thus obliging him to recast the theory.”
These innovative but overly complex and theoretical ideas proved detrimental to the IDF performance in the 2006 conflict. Naveh’s complicated terminology became the lingua franca of some segments of the officer corps, which in practice translated into unclear orders that were understood neither by subordinates nor by the officers who gave them. Unclear language and thinking had an effect even at the apex of IDF command. For instance, Halutz issued an order for entry into Lebanon, Operation Changing Direction 3: “A system-wide, integrated, and timed strike (Onslaught) of maneuver operations with all capabilities in order to undermine the operational performance of the organization [Hezbollah].” An order to conquer a hill or occupy a village is easy for commanders to follow. In the middle of a difficult war, they should not have to start deciphering what they might do to “undermine the operational performance” of Hezbollah, and how they should measure success in this regard.
While a core group of senior Israeli officers immersed themselves in Naveh’s teachings, political leaders failed to maintain Israel’s deterrence against Hezbollah. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, then-prime minister Ehud Barak warned both Lebanon and Syria that cross-border attacks would be considered “acts of war.” But Barak, and later Ariel Sharon and Olmert, repeatedly vetoed IDF recommendations to respond aggressively, protecting the calm on the border while allowing Hezbollah to attack and build up its arsenal. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, then commanding the IDF’s Northern Command, wrote a letter to his superiors in August 2000 stating that continued Hezbollah provocations “will lead to a situation that we will not be able to accept.” Two months later, Hezbollah kidnapped three soldiers. The IDF pushed for a determined strike to deter future aggression, but the cabinet decided on limited and largely ineffective aerial attacks. The 2006 war was proof that deterrence without the determination to follow through on threats would not win Israel calm and quiet but only war.
It was the 2006 conflict that re-established Israeli deterrence. It is true that since the war Hezbollah has built up its arsenal beyond pre-war levels. But with more than 500 of its fighters dead, and Nasrallah living in a bunker, Hezbollah has never been as quiet as it has been since the 2006 war.
Despite the limits of deterrence, Israel sees it as the best available option. “This approach provides a limited remedy,” BESA Center’s Dr. Eitan Shamir writes in Infinity Journal. “Israel paid a high price in international public opinion in while its approach did not solve the root causes of the problem. Moreover, it does not even prevent the organizations from rearming and preparing for the next round, which will most likely be more violent. However, it has bought years of quiet borders—not a negligible achievement in this volatile region.”
American commanders see the complex challenge posed by Hezbollah as a harbinger of future conflicts the U.S. will face. Gen. George Casey, Jr., US Army chief of staff, declared, “the conflict that…intrigues me most, and I think speaks more toward what we can expect in the decades ahead, is the one that happened in Lebanon in the summer of 2006.”
The Pentagon has sent at least twelve teams to interview Israeli officers who fought in 2006. “I've organized five major games in the last two years,” said Frank Hoffman of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico. “And all of them have focused on Hezbollah.”
Nonetheless, several reports that came out shortly after the conflict erred on fundamental aspects of the war. In “We Were Caught Unprepared,” a Ft. Leavenworth Combat Studies Institute study of the war, historian Matt Matthews claims that Israel adopted a doctrine, based on Effects-Based Operations (EBO), that led it to believe that airpower alone could win the war. “For six years,” contends Matthews, “the IDF conducted a ounterinsurgency campaign against the Palestinians and developed a doctrine rooted in EBO and high-tech wizardry.”
However, Israel never adopted this doctrine, nor did it ever think it could win from the air. Matthews misses the real problem: The IDF had no doctrine, especially in the ground war. More troublingly, Matthews’s uncritical use of sources leads him to present the war as a resounding victory for Hezbollah. Despite this, “We Were Caught Unprepared” and other associated CSI studies are among the most-cited works on the wars in the United States, causing other students of the conflict to adopt their erroneous conclusions.
Perhaps the most pertinent lessons the United States military can draw from the Second Lebanon War concern defense budgets and strategy against terrorist organizations. With calls in the United States to pull money from defense budgets, and a military focused on COIN, the American armed forces could find themselves in a situation similar to the IDF of 2006. Without appropriate training and resources, even the most skilled formations will struggle in complex combat situations that differ greatly from counter-insurgency operations. As the Israelis learned, facing a certain type of conflict for a decade is no guarantee of the shape future warfare will take. It would be most prudent to train and fund an American military that can handle both COIN and the conventional ends of the spectrum. Indeed, Israeli-style deterrence may begin to look like an attractive alternative to resource and manpower heavy population centric counterinsurgency strategy.
There is no doubt that American adversaries are studying and perhaps preparing to emulate Hezbollah’s strategy from 2006. Studying Israel’s successes and failures is a key component in preparing for America’s future conflicts.
Lazar Berman is research program manager for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.