In an article that appeared in Volume 1, Issue No. 3 of Infinity Journal, Martin van Creveld analyzes the Second Lebanon War (2006) five years after the war’s end. The analysis focuses on the tactical and operational level without going into the strategic debate.[i] However, he reaches the interesting conclusion that despite the tactical failures of the IDF in the war, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has succeeded in achieving unprecedented quiet on the northern border, mainly as a result of his resolve to persist with the war (which as stated, suffered from serious tactical problems). This is, apparently, a strange situation where a lack of strategy and a tactical failure led to retrospective success. Sun Tzu must be turning in his grave. Can this really be the case?
Was Olmert’s success really fortuitous, resulting from his persistence, or did he choose the correct strategy and win? In order to answer this question it is necessary to analyze the Second Lebanon War at the strategic level.
However, there is a problem in evaluating Israeli strategy and the extent of its success in the war, since there has been a long-standing problem in Israel with management at the strategic level. No basic documents can be found that define Israel’s military strategy in general, and especially those that defined the strategy for the 2006 war in Lebanon. Furthermore, over the years Israeli governments have been harshly criticized for coming up short in the field of strategic planning.
We will thus attempt to make a strategic assessment of the Second Lebanon War in a different way. First, we will make an informed guess as to the hypothetical “Israeli” strategy and then evaluate the activities of the IDF against this hypothetical strategy and see what we can learn from it.
What was the strategy of the two sides?
I have chosen to analyze the strategies of the sides using a reverse engineering method; based on their actions and not on their public declarations, which frequently fail to present the strategic truth.
Hizballah’s strategy was derived from the organization’s objectives at the Lebanese and Islamic levels vis-à-vis Israel. We will concentrate on the ultimate objective of Hizballah vis-à-vis Israel, which is to be an element of defiance that confronts Israel. In my opinion, the objectives indicated by van Creveld (Shabaa, prisoners, etc.) are not Hizballah’s objectives but the means used by it to justify its resistance to Israel.
Hizballah’s strategy, therefore, in the context of its confrontation with Israel, was one of resistance. During the period preceding the Second Lebanon War, Hizballah attempted to retain its operational freedom to act from time to time against Israel in a way that would justify its military existence and present itself as the “Shield of Lebanon”. This operational activity included high trajectory fire and isolated ground actions, mainly near the border. Hizballah relied on both the firepower in its possession and Israel’s reluctance to return to Lebanon after the withdrawal — so as to create deterrence against too-strong an Israeli response to its activities.
Thus, Hizballah does not have an objective of high intensity confrontation. It regards such a situation as a risk that it is prepared to take, but it is not one of Hizballah’s objectives and consequently it wishes to terminate such actions as soon as possible, provided that it can return to its strategy of resistance thereafter.
In the event of a broader confrontation, Hizballah’s strategy includes considerable and varied firepower that can hit the whole of northern Israel, and guerrilla forces that can demand a price for any maneuver by the IDF inside Southern Lebanon. Hizballah employed the ‘spider web approach’, according to which the Israeli home front cannot withstand a broad attack and take casualties.
Furthermore, as appropriate to an asymmetric strategy, Hizballah had neither the intention nor the capability of preventing penetration of Lebanon by the IDF. It thus relied on the fact that the IDF would, as far as possible, avoid attacking the civilian population in the south if it re-occupied territories in Lebanon. In other words, Hizballah’s strategy did not include a defense of Southern Lebanon in the classical meaning of the term. Such defense was left to the responsibility of Israel and the international community.
Israel’s objective against Hizballah is to minimize friction on the border for as long a period as possible. This (hypothetical) Israeli strategy attempted to minimize the activities of Hizballah near the border by means of deterrence, protection of IDF forces on the border, and reduction of the daily friction with Hizballah. Israeli strategy in the past had relied on using Syria as a means of restraining Hizballah. This strategy became invalid after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in the year preceding the Second Lebanon War, and the IDF was in the process of constructing an alternative, a process that was not completed prior to the war. As ruled by the Winograd Committee, Israel lacked a coherent strategy for the situation of broad confrontation with Hizballah, and consequently the Winograd Committee criticized the hasty decision to go to war without a clear strategy as to how it should be managed.
In the light of the IDF’s military actions in the war, I propose that the Israel’s actual strategy was as follows: a heavy assault against Hizballah — its military assets, the center of the government and its deployment in Beirut, and its communal infrastructure in Southern Lebanon. Such a strategy intended to demonstrate the Israeli determination to act against Hizballah, including by ground actions, while absorbing hits from Hizballah fire, and resistance that would refute Nasrallah’s spider web approach. In this way, at the end of the confrontation Hizballah would be beaten, deterred, and have little legitimacy for the continuance of its military activities against Israel. As we have said, such a definition of Israeli strategy is derived from an a posteriori analysis of its activities, and I do not claim that such a strategic definition existed before the war.
How did each side implement its strategy?
Hizballah did indeed act as it had planned. It carried out limited operations in the border region that peaked in attempts at kidnapping – which generally failed – until it achieved success on July 12, 2006. It was deployed in Southern Lebanon in such a way permitting it to carry out massive firing against northern Israel, as well as guerrilla warfare against Israeli ground actions. In addition, Hizballah was engaged in a massive program (that has continued without let-up until the present) for re-equipping with medium-range rockets produced in Iran and Syria.
However, Hizballah ran into a number of surprises when the war started. First, it lost its long-range firing capability to attacks by the air force, and later discovered that its medium-range launchers were destroyed immediately after firing. (Incidentally, van Creveld is in error on this point when he presents the achievements of the air force against the rockets as having taken place during the first two days of the war only. This was an impressive tactical success that continued during the entire war.) However, it later compensated for this loss by firing short-range rockets.
Hizballah was also surprised by the IDF’s determination to act on the ground in Lebanon. Hizballah lost hundreds of combatants in battles that developed, while failing to kidnap soldiers or bodies of dead IDF soldiers, and it took a low toll (as they saw it) as a result of the ground maneuver.
Hizballah was also surprised by the intensity of the attack and the destruction caused to the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut, and the destruction of infrastructure, mainly in Southern Lebanon. Hizballah’s efforts at re-equipping during hostilities did not influence the fighting, and did not permit it to change its nature. Nasrallah did attempt to deter Israel from continuing attacks on Beirut by threatening to attack “beyond Haifa”, but Israel did not cease its attacks. On the other hand, Hizballah did not fall apart but rather maintained the organized character of its activities. Over almost the entire length of the war, Hizballah was ready to halt firing in return for an Israeli withdrawal, provided that it could continue to present its very survival and the damage to Israel as a “victory”.
In other words, Hizballah acted in accordance with the strategy that it had prepared. However this could provide no answer to the excessive force applied against Hizballah by Israel. Further, the price paid by the organization and by the population of Southern Lebanon far exceeded the price that Nasrallah was prepared to pay when he ordered the kidnapping of soldiers.
In contrast, the IDF did not act in accordance with a coherent strategy. It began with a massive and successful air attack and subsequent ground actions near the border, but no direct connection between its activities and the achievement of the termination of the hostilities can be discerned. Although the IDF succeeded in attacking Hizballah’s combatants, it certainly did not succeed in halting the firing of rockets on northern Israel.
Did the IDF really attempt to halt the firing? The IDF did not act directly and effectively against the firing, and it may be seen from this that it had no real intention of directly halting it. It can also be assumed that the IDF hoped that the pressure applied to Hizballah and the fear that the operations would be intensified, would cause the organization to stop firing.
The Winograd Committee addressed this anomaly indirectly, when it harshly criticized “the period of treading water” prior to the decision to carry out an extensive land operation. The committee correctly stated that Israel should have decided whether hostilities would be terminated after the first days and an attempt made to reach international agreements (as occurred in the end), or whether the pressure on Hizballah, Southern Lebanon, and the state of Lebanon should be intensified in order to arrive at better terms in the agreements. Either way, it is not clear how the continuation of the military operations during the period of treading water, which included attacks from the air and limited ground actions, were supposed to cause Hizballah to halt the firing of rockets.
As I understand it, the IDF did not attempt to directly achieve a cessation of rocket fire and therefore did not fail to do so. The feeling of failure regarding a cessation of the firing of rockets by Hizballah resulted from a lack of strategic understanding.
Did the Israeli home front withstand Hizballah’s attacks?
Nasrallah felt sufficiently confident to take military action against Israel, because he estimated that Israel was as weak as a “spider’s web” and that Israeli society would not withstand the losses of a wide-scale war. Nasrallah made a serious mistake. Despite the considerable criticism of the results of the war in Israel, and of the way it was conducted, the Israeli home front contended with the challenges of the war successfully. (One should not infer from this that the systems functioned properly – quite the contrary.) Despite the inefficient operation of the systems on the home front during the hostilities, there were few casualties, the physical damage was repaired within a few weeks after the war, and the economic damage was largely reversible, without seriously harming the Israeli economy.
Van Creveld argues that this was not an Israeli success but resulted from the inaccuracy of the weapons in Hizballah’s possession. However, Nasrallah should have been familiar with the capabilities of the weapons at his disposal, and he even relied on their low accuracy in order to justify massive firing at civilians. It can be seen therefore that Nasrallah erred at the strategic level when he underestimated the capability of Israeli society to meet defensive challenges.
This assessment is supported by an examination of the efforts made by Hizballah after the war to greatly expand its firing capabilities, even as this endangered its allies, Iran and Syria, who became increasingly regarded as supporters of terrorism following these efforts at re-equipping.
Did the Israeli strategy of attacking Hizballah and Southern Lebanon achieve its objectives? As van Creveld testifies, the northern border has never been quieter. In other words, Israeli strategy succeeded. It is important to emphasize that, without doubt, Hizballah sustained a defeat regarding its objective of resistance. Its attempt to present its actual survival as an organization, and the damage it caused to Israel as a victory, is a clear act of deception.
In this context we do not need to wait for the jury to give its verdict, as van Creveld proposes, since it is clear that following the war Hizballah changed its modus operandi against Israel and not of its own volition. In contrast, the degree of deterrence applied by the sides following the war will change over the course of time, and it is likely that Hizballah will again feel capable of action in the future. However, this does not change the strategic appraisal of the war.
Therefore, we have seen that assuming the hypothetical strategy we have proposed, at the strategic level, the Second Lebanon War reflects an Israeli success compared to Hizballah’s failure. I find no support for the argument presented by van Creveld that Olmert’s determination to continue with a long war led to the success. On the contrary, I support the conclusion of the Winograd Committee that it might have been possible to reach the same achievements by reducing the period of treading water.
How was the strategic debate conducted on the Israeli side?
The major problem in the analysis we have made is that there was no clear Israeli strategy. The hypothetical strategy was tailored to fit the activities of the IDF, but it is quite uncertain that there existed such a strategy directing IDF operations. This may be seen in a multitude of ways, but we will give two important examples:
The period of treading water – As stated, the major criticism by the Winograd Committee regarding the strategic management of the war was directed at the long period of time between the opening of the war and the decision to carry out an extensive ground action. If there had been a clear strategy during the war it would have been clear to the leaders that they must decide on a cessation of the hostilities or its intensification, since, obviously, the military activities during the period of treading water had no chance of causing a cessation of the firing of rockets.
If the hypothetical strategy had been accepted in advance, it would have been clear that in order to reach the military achievements and improve the situation in Lebanon, a political effort was required in parallel with the military one. In fact, the political effort started late and was not coordinated with the military activities. Indeed, the lack of coordination peaked with the commencement of the large-scale ground operation at the end of the war.
The inability to define a strategy, to discuss it in real-time and, mainly, to make the appropriate military and political efforts during the war, is a very serious structural problem in Israel. It is probable that the solution to this problem has begun to emerge with the enactment of the National Security Council Law in 2008, but the onus of proof still lies with it and with the executive bodies. Without doubt, at the strategic level this is the most important lesson to emerge from the Second Lebanon War.
Re-assessment of the tactical failures of the IDF:
The strategic deficiency also exacerbated some of the IDF’s tactical difficulties, as addressed by van Creveld. In my opinion, the IDF, its officers and combatants, and of course the public failed to understand the nature of the war and consequently acted in a way that did not match the situation.
In general it is customary to classify the various types of confrontation as follows:
Homeland security → Low intensity conflict (asymmetric) → Conventional war
Border security activities Second Lebanon War 1973 War
By this chart the second Lebanon war is a low intensity conflict.
The more appropriate classification should be understood as seen in the chart below:
In this classification the Second Lebanon War was a high-intensity war waged against an asymmetric enemy. The distinction is not merely semantic, since it influences the nature of deployment of forces and their operations. During the Second Lebanon War, the forces were deployed in a manner similar to that of border security operations: the General Staff bunker was not activated, the CGS gave tactical orders to the forces (not to move during the day, for example), and the level of risk that the forces were prepared to take was low – the forces halted after taking their first casualties.
But the most dramatic influence was that the officers and soldiers failed to realize that this was a real war, and in such a war, completion of the mission takes precedence over political correctness and polite behavior. Officers that received commands which they did not understand and which they were certainly unable to carry out did not protest or ignore orders.
In every war there is a gap between the level of understanding between the headquarters and the reality in the field, but when the soldiers act independently they provide a solution for these differences. However in the “polite” behavior of the IDF they reduced the chance that those in the field will bridge such critical gaps.
The criticism generally voiced, including van Creveld, according to which the tactical echelons luckily corrected the mistakes of the command, is incorrect and is due, in my opinion, to basic misunderstandings of what happens in a war. Wars are influenced by the initiative of the soldiers in the field. The IDF achieves superiority over its enemies primarily because of the high ability of its soldiers and junior officers. What was lacking in the Second Lebanon War was, in fact, a greater independence on the part of the forces.
In order to maintain an historical balance we should recall that on the Sinai front in the 1973 Yom Kippur War the opposite mistake was made in the strategic understanding of the nature of the confrontation. The IDF acted as if it was facing an existential threat from the Egyptians, when the latter were attempting to achieve a very limited objective (and were also incapable of achieving more than that).
This mistaken understanding made it difficult to take the correct tactical decision of a withdrawal to a rear line of defense followed by a counter-attack only after the necessary conditions had been achieved. In the case of the Yom Kippur War, the result of this erroneous evaluation of the nature of the confrontation created excessive aggression that caused numerous casualties. In the Second Lebanon War it caused hesitancy.
At the strategic level, Israel could be regarded as the victor since it had a better strategy than that of Hizballah, which failed. However, limited, and sometimes totally lacking, strategic management led to a situation in which the strategic advantages were not fully exploited.
Problems at the tactical level resulted from lack of preparation; training was intensified by an incorrect understanding of the nature of the confrontation, evaluation that is critical for correct behavior at the tactical and operational levels.
However, the Second Lebanon War demonstrated more than anything else, the inherent problem of an asymmetric entity, which, during a high intensity confrontation remains inferior and will always lose to the conventional side (but not before inflicting casualties and damage on him).
[i] In his article, Martin van Creveld virtually never examined the management of Israel’s strategy – what was the strategy for the war, how did the IDF plan (if it did plan) to halt the firing of the rockets, how and whether the strategy changed during the war. Consequently it is not clear how van Creveld reaches the conclusion that the persistence regarding the length of the war was what led to the positive result of quiet on the northern border.