Israeli Defense Forces – all they can be?

In political-military affairs and in the Middle East in particular, image is often at least as important as reality. Countries need to project fear with their armed forces. Those that do not are vulnerable to aggressive moves against them.

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has always had a fearsome reputation. It has won all its wars against Arab armies. The actual fighting may have been brief, but the outcomes have been clear.

Like the US Armed Forces, the IDF has not done as well against Arab guerrillas. America's messy, prolonged struggle in Iraq is a lot like Israel's last messy, prolonged struggle against Arab guerrillas in Lebanon that lasted 18 years and only ended in 2000.

Now, the IDF is back in Lebanon, fighting Arab guerrillas again. Its initial strategy this time was the use of minimal ground combat and maximum air and artillery bombardment. This strategy appears to have accomplished little. A dug-in, hardened, fanatic, and well-equipped army fighting on its own ground cannot be "rooted out" with firepower alone.

Moreover, this cannot be done "on the cheap." Only infantry and armored forces can do the job, one hilltop village at a time. And once the area has been cleared, more infantry and armored forces will have to occupy the ground to keep the enemy from reoccupying the land.

Israel is a small country, with a population of about 6 million, mainly made up of descendants of immigrants from across the world. Israel does not believe that it can afford to lose its children fighting Muslim zealots in the stony hills of south Lebanon, and therefore has tried to find a way to fight that does not involve pitched, or ground-war, battles.

This gives the Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas a marked advantage. They are indifferent to losses and are evidently quite willing to slug it out with IDF infantry and armor.

The IDF is a conscripted army with most of its strength in its reserve forces – made up mainly of family men, part-time civilian soldiers who once served a few years in the full-time IDF. Forces such as these are inherently undertrained. IDF reserve soldiers, for example, are supposed to be available for unit training only one month a year. It's difficult to maintain skills, such as artillery gunnery, in that kind of system and time. Full-time units like the Golani Brigade have had a difficult experience against this enemy, so it is a fair question to ask how well these reserve units are going to perform against Hizbullah.

There has never been any doubt that Syria and Iran supported the Shiite guerrillas. But countries that initially were going to refuse support to Hizbullah after it captured the two Israeli soldiers on July 12 – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt – have reversed course in the face of outrage from their populations.

So far, Israel's performance in this war has not been impressive. Its air and artillery fire has not hindered Hizbullah's ability to fire rockets into Israel. The heliborne raid on Baalbec this week signals Israel's intent to change to a more aggressive use of ground combat power. But it is another fair question to ask how much damage that poor performance in the early stages of this campaign has done to effective deterrence, which the fear of Israeli and US forces has exerted until now.

Israel has now announced that it is going to "campaign" to the Litani River line and then wait to be "relieved" by an international intervention force. If there is not a cease-fire in place, that force may never arrive, but what is almost certain to arrive is an ever-growing number of international Islamic "volunteers" to fight with Hizbullah. This will not be pleasant.

The US currently has 130,000 troops at war in Shiite-dominated Iraq. As I wrote in this paper two weeks ago, the US supply line runs through Shiite country to Kuwait. Hizbullah is a Shiite movement. Let us hope that IDF performance is all that it should be in the coming weeks.

Patrick Lang is former head of human intelligence collection and Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He maintains a personal blog at: www.turcopolier.typepad.com.

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