Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 2  /  

Coping with Nonstate Rivals

Coping with Nonstate Rivals Coping with Nonstate Rivals
To cite this article: Shamir, Eitan, “Coping with Nonstate Rivals”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 2, Spring 2011, pages 8-11.

While the ongoing debate on whether to use population centric versus enemy centric approaches rages on, few understand the logic behind Israel’s approach vis-à-vis the militant organizations that exist at its doorstep. Moreover, analysts tend to employ the two approaches mentioned above when they interpret Israeli action and therefore often reach the wrong conclusions. The purpose of the paper is to explore the different approaches used by both the US and Israeli militaries when dealing with nonstate actors; namely the various groups and organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza.

In a recent Security Studies article two researchers came to the conclusion that:

In both cases (Lebanon ‘06 and Gaza ‘08), the Israeli government sought to create a situation in which indigenous governments were more willing and better able to restrain these groups or remove them from power. Although Israel’s coercive efforts undoubtedly damaged Hezbollah and Hamas materially, they also weakened state institutions…. and eliminated any realistic prospect that these groups could be restrained or removed from power through internal processes…

Ultimately, Israel’s strategy was based on the premise that applying pressure to civilian populations and targeting civilian infrastructure—when combined with direct attacks against radical groups—would diminish popular support for these groups, the evidence to date is not encouraging. Moreover, it appears that Israel continues to believe in the effectiveness of this strategy.[i]

This brief article argues that the above analysis represents a misunderstanding of Israeli strategy. Furthermore, the Israeli approach was not designed to pressure either the government to restrain organizations or to diminish their popular support. The Israeli approach is much more limited and is primarily designed to merely persuade the other side that any action against Israel will result in a high price – thus achieving deterrence. Within this approach, the assumption is that the population will not reduce its ideological support for such organizations. However, practical considerations will cause them to pressure their leadership not to act against Israel, as they will partly pay the price.

In western military intellectual circles the issue of coping with nonstate rivals has been defined around the concept of counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN theory suggests that Clausewitz’s secondary Trinity — government, population and the military — is fundamentally altered as insurgents act to overthrow the government while relying on the population’s support for cover and legitimacy.[ii] Therefore, the classic symmetry between government versus government and military versus military is violated.[iii] While in the latter case winning a war means forcing the rival’s government to surrender by neutralizing its military wing, this is less clear in COIN situations when there is a blurring of government, military and population.

After spending time in Vietnam as a journalist, Moshe Dayan observed this fundamental difference between conventional wars and counterinsurgency. Dayan wrote the following in his Vietnam diary:

In regular wars the measure of progress towards victory is clear – it is mostly geographic – territorial. One needs to get to Paris or Berlin etc, occupy the enemy capital, to bring its government to sign a surrender agreement. In this case the Americans are aware they could not pass the 17th latitude, could not bomb the civilian population etc, and how would this end? How could they reach a decision? How could they measure progress?[iv]

The scholarly literature today offers two schools of thought regarding the best way to cope with insurgencies. The first could be characterized as enemy centric. This approach suggests that COIN is not fundamentally different from conventional wars, thus the purpose and main effort of the campaign should focus on neutralizing the military wing by directly locating and engaging them. “A war is war is a war” as an American officer once stated.[v]

The second approach is known as population centric. This approach focuses its main effort on gaining the support of the population and by so doing depriving the insurgents of their main livelihood. The debates over the best approach for the involvement of the US-led coalition in Iraq and NATO in Afghanistan were mostly carried out in the context of these two approaches. Many opined that the US military’s focus was too much on killing the enemy rather than on gaining the population’s support or wining “hearts and minds”. In the process the civilians suffered as a result of the fighting and therefore increased their support for the insurgents. One such proponent was John Nagl who, in his book Learning to Eat a Soup with a Knife, called for: “nation building rather than the destruction of the enemy army”.[vi] Nagl was one of the key authors of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Field Manual on counterinsurgency — FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency — which advocated focusing on the population’s needs while warning against “overemphasizing killing and capturing the enemy rather than securing and engaging the populace”.[vii] The debates continue, as some analysts remain convinced that the main effort should be directed towards annihilating the insurgents. One such critic is Australian Army Brigadier General Justin Kelly. In an article titled, “Time to move on from Hearts and Minds: Annihilation in COIN”, Kelly stated, “We should be doing more killings and fewer good deeds.”[viii]

While this debate continues to rage, we have also witnessed the emergence of a third approach that has characterized the Israeli response to nonstate organizations during the last decade or so. This approach is based on deterrence (or in some cases coercion and deterrence). Deterrence can be achieved by either inflicting pain on the population or by severely impairing the enemy’s military capabilities. According to John Mearsheimer deterrence will not succeed when the potential attacker believes that a successful counter-attack is both unlikely and costly. According to him, a rival that lacks a quick, decisive and low-cost maneuver, as in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah, would most likely to be deterred under these circumstances.[ix] Robert Pepe, whose work focused on coercion, concluded that denial aimed at military capabilities is the best strategy to ensure coercion. However, he questions whether this conclusion is valid in the case of counterinsurgency campaigns.[x] In the case of Hezbollah the approach was to deter the organization. In the case of Hamas, the approach was one of coercion and deterrence (change its ongoing behavior – eight years of continuous rocket and mortar attacks). Deterrence was achieved in both cases by aiming at the military capabilities and hitting them as hard as possible. However, as both Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s military deployment is intertwined with the local population, there was a spillover effect that caused the population a painful experience. The damage to both the militants and the population created a deterrence effect.

A Pessimistic Approach

There are a few characteristics that are unique to this approach, which we may call “severe impairment”. In contrast to the US approach in Afghanistan and Iraq, this doctrine is quite limited and modest in its stated objectives. It is not about changing local societies or about nation building. It is not about achieving victory and annihilation of the insurgents. It will not prevent these groups from rearming and regrouping in preparation for the next round. At best, it will secure quiet borders for a few years. In contrast to the first two approaches described earlier, the deterrence approach tries to avoid lengthy occupation and the prolonged presence of soldiers on hostile territory. The negative experience of the Israelis both in Lebanon and in Gaza has led to a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces. The current Israeli policy advocates as little presence as possible on the ground, for the shortest possible time. It is for this reason that the approach calls for a massive use of stand off fire combined with limited incursions. A major ground maneuver is the last resort, with a preset date for the force to exit also being required.

This approach is not new in history. Following the Roman defeat in what is known as the “Varus Disaster”, when three Roman legions were annihilated in 7 AD by Germanic tribes, the Romans decided not to expand their empire beyond the Rhine River. However, in order to deter the Germanic peoples from crossing into their own territory and in order to regain their respect, the Roman legions launched a short campaign across the Rhine led by the Roman General Germanicus. Germanicus’ legions inflicted huge casualties and after a few more raids across the Rhine, Tiberius ordered the Roman forces to halt and withdraw back to Roman territory. The Romans decided that the huge cost and risk of keeping the Roman army operating beyond the Rhine was simply not worth the benefit to be gained.[xi]

Another historical example which was primarily aimed at the population was William T. Sherman’s march to the sea. According to B. H Liddell Hart in The Strategy of Indirect Approach, “There is no question that the moral effect of this march upon the country at large was greater than would have been the most decided victory.”

Thus, when speaking about the goals of the Lebanon War in 2006, Chief of Staff (COS) Halutz stated: “The strategic goals included: …expanding deterrence…a serious blow to Hezbollah”.[xii] For that end, Halutz believed that the maneuver component is not always vital:

“The way to fight terror is not by employing armored divisions that will capture territory, it is by inflicting continuous, painful blows that will inflict on the other side a much higher price than he ever expected….At its foundation lies an approach that calls for action that consists of plentiful force, …one that produces deterrence…”[xiii]

Brigadier General Gal Hirsh also understood the objectives of the war as: “…It was obvious that the aim of the maneuver into Lebanon is not to eliminate launches but to directly hit Hezbollah, to make it pay a high price and to shake its foundations.”[xiv]

The IDF plan was strictly aimed at Hezbollah’s military targets and a few infrastructure installations that could serve a military purpose. However, the IDF quickly discovered the spillover effect on the population. Due to the nature of deployment of Hezbollah, which is to be embedded “amongst the people”, to use Rupert Smith’s famous phrase, the population had been impacted greatly.[xv] Unavoidably, they became part of the war’s strategy:

“The stream of refugees towards the north — Tyre and Beirut — grew and served two purposes: To increase our operational freedom to act around the villages but also to make the price clear to the Lebanese people for its support for the Hezbollah.”[xvi]

On the whole, Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) followed a similar pattern. The purpose was to hit the military wing of Hamas as hard as possible and within a short timeframe. However, as in Lebanon, the side effect meant the population suffered too. As one Israeli analyst said “…placing their military capabilities among civilians who serve as human shields can potentially help strengthen Israeli deterrence, as long as the price of the conflict is clear to all of the parties involved.”[xvii] The objective was regaining deterrence against Hamas, which was achieved. Hamas, who is directly responsible for the population’s well being in Gaza, would not run the risk of having “…the population rise against it …”[xviii] It is the assessment of yet another analyst that “…The operation has caused substantial damage to the military and civilian infrastructure and at least during the period of reconstruction …Hamas will maintain a tranquil border.”[xix]

In both operations the ultimate objective was therefore not to destroy or bring the other side to total collapse, and certainly not to change the political landscape on which it thrives. The latter two require long occupation periods. Even then success is not guaranteed. The objective was to achieve deterrence, which would prevent Hezbollah from initiating any action against Israel; and likewise to forcefully prevent Hamas from shooting rockets into Israel, and further deter it from hostile action.

However, one of the key differences between Lebanon and Gaza was the role of maneuver. The Lebanon war proved that large maneuver is required, but in contrast to its traditional role the task “…of the maneuvering forces will be to conquer the area from which the high trajectory weapons are fired and gain operational control. Conquering the territory is not a goal in and of itself, but it allows a reduction in the fire and destruction of the enemy’s operational infrastructures until the forces are evacuated.”[xx] The ground forces conduct what could be described as a large raid; after achieving their missions and evacuating the territory, there is a very short “hold” and no “build” phase following the termination of the “clear” phase.

The Israeli approach in both cases proved to be effective. Israel achieved effective deterrence and at least for the time being has not been challenged by either Hamas or Hezbollah. No one can tell how deterrence will persist. As stated earlier, this approach provides a limited remedy. Israel paid a high price in international public opinion 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.


[i] Evan Braden Montgomery and Stacie L. Pettyjohn, “Democratization, Instability, and War: Israel’s 2006 Conflicts with Hamasand Hezbollah”, Security Studies, (August, 2010 ), 19: 3, 521 — 554
[ii] Beatrice Heuser, Reading Clasuewitz, (London: Pimilico,2002), 54.
[iii] Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, (New York, NY: Free Press, 1991), 57-62.
[iv] Moshe Dayan, Vietnam Diary, (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1977), 40 [Heb.]
[v] US Army Colonel Harry Summers quoted in John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 27.
[vi] Ibid, 223.
[vii] Department of the Army, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency (Washington DC, 2006), 51.
[viii] Justin Kelly, ‘How to Win in Afghanistan: Time to move on from Hearts and Minds: Annihilation in COIN’, Quadrant, Vol. LIII:4, (April ,2009).
[ix] John Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP , 1983), 203-208.
[x] Robert Pape, Bombing to Win, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP), 30-31.
[xi] B. H Liddell Hart, Strategy of Indirect Approach, (London: Faber, 1967),169-170.
[xii] Dani Haloutz, Strightforwrad, (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 2010), 364-365. [Hebrew.]
[xiii] Ibid., 362.
[xiv] Gal Hirsh, War Story –Love Story, (Tel-Aviv: Yedoith Ahronoth, 2009), 240. [Hebrew.]
[xv] General Rupert Smith coined the term ‘War Among the People’ to describe the character of today’s conflict; Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, The Art of War in the Modern World, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 5-6.
[xvi] Halutz , Straight Forward , 394.
[xvii] Gabriel Siboni, ‘War and Victory’, Military and Strategy, INSS, Vol.1:3 (December 2009). [Hebrew.]
[xviii] Giora Eiland, ‘The Political-Military Relations and the Operation Results’, INSS Strategic Briefing, Vol.11:4, (February 2009). [Hebrew.]
[xix] Zachi Shalom, ‘Is it Possible to Reach a Decision against Terror Organization: Cast Lead as a Case Study’, INSS Strategic Briefing, Vol.11:4, (February 2009). [Hebrew.]
[xx] Siboni, ‘War’.