From Andrew Exum
Today, as Eliyahu Winograd presented his final report in Jerusalem on Israel’s performance during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, I sat in London, having coffee with one of the U.S. Army’s smartest counterinsurgency experts. The two of us were discussing what lessons we, as American military professionals and analysts, should draw from those 33 days of war. To be sure, there are many. As I have written previously for this blog, both sides—Israel and Hezbollah—deserve careful study.
But in the end, one of the lessons of the 2006 war was that tactics—and correcting tactical mistakes—only get you so far. The 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel started with a disastrous strategic miscalculation by Hasan Nasrallah—that Israel would respond in a measured, limited fashion to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers across the Blue Line—and was followed up by a series of catastrophic failures of leadership in Israel that led to so much suffering for both the Israeli and Lebanese populations.
Military exertions, as the Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz recognized, are only means employed toward political ends. Sometimes the military’s organization and performance can be solid, but if the policy toward which it is being employed is flawed, the result will be disastrous nonetheless. In the aftermath of Napoleon’s victories, Clausewitz asked: “But is it true that the real shock was military rather than political?… Was the disaster due to the effect of policy on war, or was the policy itself at fault?”
In the 2006 war, the IDF was asked to accomplish strategic aims that were unrealistic and hastily considered by decision-makers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Watching the war unfold from Cairo in 2006, I knew the minute Israeli strategic decision-makers assured a nervous Israeli populace that the IDF would destroy Hezbollah, rescue the hostages, and end rocket attacks on northern Israel, the job of the IDF had become next to impossible. Hezbollah had only to deny Israel one of its goals to be considered a victor in some circles. In the end, they denied the IDF all three.
To be sure, the IDF was not well prepared for this most recent war. Between 2000 and 2006, the IDF had grown complacent in its operations in the West Bank and Gaza and was unprepared for combat in southern Lebanon. But I wonder whether even the U.S. Army’s XVIIIth Airborne Corps would have been able to destroy Hezbollah within the month-long period given to the IDF.
The failures of the IDF in the 2006 war are known, and new IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has already corrected most of them. The unrealistic objectives civilian policymakers set for the IDF in the first few days of the war, however, are less recognized. From statements issued today, the final Winograd report seems to have gone easier on Ehud Olmert and Gen. Dan Halutz than had previous drafts. It seems more likely, in fact, that Hasan Nasrallah and Hezbollah—already crowing about the report from Beirut—have learned the lesson from their strategic error better than the Israeli political establishment has learned theirs.
The IDF will learn its lessons, as it always seems to do. I wonder, though, whether the political leadership in Jerusalem will be able to resist getting mired in such a disastrous conflict again.
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