Gaza as Alternative COIN Model

Without getting too blogged down in Gaza, I’d like to respond to some criticisms that have been raised to a recent post, both here on the WPR blog, and in comments at Friday Lunch Club.

I’ll start with Petra’s welcome feedback, which adds needed perspective in a pitch-perfect tone, something rare for this isssue. Indeed, one of the reasons I usually try to avoid writing too much about it isbecause it requires a long list of caveats, which I might one day takethe time to compose and link to each time I get the urge to weigh in,but which essentially boils down to an assumption that reasonableparties on both side of the conflict do exist and will eventually winout, and that my remarks are addressed to them. The post Petra was responding to, because it didn’t include that list of caveats, might have given the impression thatsomehow I approve of Hamas’ extremists, of which there are no shortage,or else expect Israel to negotiate with some imaginary Hamas, magicallyfiltered of all those within the organization who will settle for nothing short of Israel’sdestruction. I don’t.

The problem, though, with trotting out indefensible characters like Nizar Rayyan as a ready made argument is that they exist not only on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on both sides of every violent conflict. Reducing Hamas to Rayyan also ignores the ways, described in the Army War College monograph (.pdf) I referred to, that Hamas’ ideology has evolved, as even Jeffrey Goldberg recognized in the post Petra cites. It also fails to take into account the ways in which Hamas has reoriented itself to actually governing the Gaza Strip since the Palestinian civil war, a task many (wrongly) claimed would reveal its essential weakness.

In war, someone like Rayyan — who would never have come to the negotiating table — is fair game. But the way in which Israel ultimately killed him makes it unlikely that other, more reasonable members of Hamas — those with a “plasticity of belief,” to use Goldberg’s turn of phrase — will be able to generate the political support necessary to themselves come to the negotiating table either. The same goes for the ability of friends in the region (in particular, Turkey) to serve as mediator.

Am I naively projecting my own wishful thinking on Hamas? Could be. An escalation and, more importantly, widening of the conflict certainly serves its strategic purposes. But Israel’s strategic planning, which took place over the past six months, left little room to distinguish reality from wishful thinking.

To move on to the criticism leveled in the FLC comments, here’s the basic charge in response to my assertion that Hezbollah’s current inactivity demonstrates that some lasting security gains are achievable in unwinnable asymmetric conflicts:

To a large extent the analysis posted is flawed. The fact thatHezbollah did not ‘open a northern front in support of Hamas’ is notdue to the ‘deterrence’ effect of the July war of 2006 despite itsfailure. . . . Hezbollah’s capture of soldiers in the summer of 2006 was to forceIsrael to negotiate the release of Lebanese prisoners. It achieved thatgoal. It had no other goal. Among the consequences of Israel’s foolishadventure was the disapperance of the deterrence factor of Israel’sDefence Forces.

Certainly, Hezbollah’s actions in June 2006 were motivated by more than just a desire to open a northern front in support of Hamas. But that didn’t stop the Congressional Research Service, in an after-action report from September 2006 (.pdf), from naming that summer’s war the “Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah Conflict.”

Certainly, too, Hezbollah’s current restraint is traceable to the delicate political situation in Lebanon as well as factors in Syria, as both the cited comment and another at FLC point out. But here’s how the NY Times describes Hezbollah’s calculus today:

. . . [I]t cannot risk drawing Lebanon into another devastating conflictlike the one in 2006. Hezbollah is still politically vulnerable athome. . . .

Afterthe 2006 war, Mr. Nasrallah claimed victory over Israel but alsodelivered a kind of apology to the Lebanese, saying he would not haveordered the cross-border raid that precipitated the 2006 conflict if hehad known that Israel would respond with a 34-day juggernaut, leavingmore than 1,000 people dead and parts of the country in ruins.

What the IDF lost in southern Lebanon in 2006 was not its deterrent effect, but its aura of invincibility, which was an important but not exclusive ingredient to its deterrent effect. And what many critics of Israel’s current tactics are missing is that, because the strategic success of its asymmetric operations can no longer be guaranteed, it is the very disproportionate nature of the response that now matters.

Israel today and in Lebanon 2006, like Russia in the Georgia War, is essentially formulating an alternative to the COIN-centric, light footprint, hearts-and-minds Petraeus approach to asymmetric warfare, whereby a blatant disregard for the battlefield represented by the infosphere, or at least a willingness to accept significant losses on it, create a deterrent in the adversary’s subsequent strategic calculation.

The point I was trying to make is that those, like myself, who initially questioned the logic of a military intervention were overlooking the fact that while it probably will not eliminate Hamas, and definitely will not eliminate Palestinian militancy, it might just degrade Hamas’ infrastructure and its command and control capacity, as well create a physical buffer zone in the north of Gaza, that for a limited time will significantly reduce the shelling of Southern Israel. It will also force Hamas to include the possibility of a massive disproportionate response in its future thinking. And those two goals, if achieved, qualify as an improved security environment, and by the IDF’s definition of its goals, a successful operation.

As is clear, the latter military approach precludes the former diplomatic approach that I, perhaps unrealistically, consider to be a missed opportunity of the past two years. If it works as outlined above, it might end up changing the security landscape in ways that create new and unforeseen diplomatic openings.

But a lot can go wrong, especially for a casualty-adverse army like Israel’s. And as I and others (Matthew Yglesias here, Nathan Field here) have pointed out, the only thing worse than the operation failing might be its succeeding.

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