Can force fell Hizbullah?

Sheer might may curb Hizbullah's ability to strike, but it won't eradicate the militant group, analysts say.

As Israel continues to strike inside Lebanon in a bid to rout Hizbullah, the radical Islamist group is using two weapons to wage war: rockets and, more effective, TV images of civilian destruction inflicted by Israeli bombs.

The latter "weapon," broadcast over the Hizbullah-run TV station Al Manar to pump up Arab sympathies, may in the end be more powerful than Israel's military punch – a counterpunch to Israel's assertion it can crush Hizbullah through use of force.

Though Israel has eroded the militant group's ability to inflict harm, Hizbullah may in fact be pleased with the results of the violent crisis it touched off over a week ago. Its position in the area – as a service-provider in a longtime stateless zone and as a vent for Arab anger and disappointment over dashed economic and political hopes – remains secure, many experts say.

Under this scenario, analysts add, Hizbullah is here to stay – at least for the indefinite future.

Military force, no matter how overwhelming, simply can't be counted on to crush the militants, they say. It might even be what they want.

"Since many terrorist groups are caught up in notions of cosmic war – grand struggles of religious dimensions – they in fact welcome overt warfare since it vindicates their views of the war, a war whose timelines are very long," says Mark Juergensmeyer, a specialist in "new terrorism" at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who visited Lebanon just before bombs began to fall. "A siege is exactly what they want – it keeps them motivated."

Military force has successfully eradicated radical groups in the past, but under very different circumstances. The Maoist Shining Path organization that dominated and terrorized parts of Peru in the 1980s was finally obliterated by relentless search-and-destroy missions and long-term imprisonment of leaders.

But perhaps the key factor was not the military campaign but the evolution of South America. Shining Path was doomed by the waning of radical thinking in a decreasingly ideological region.

That is not the case in the Middle East, where radical Islam, religious nationalism, and "jihadism" are on the rise – witness the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah's rise through elections to a minority role in the Lebanese government, and the tenacious popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

"Hizbullah is particularly deep-rooted, and the Hamas government [in the Palestinian territories] is a fixture for some time to come, so they have to be seen as factors that are here to stay, at least for the medium to long term," says Mahan Abedin, an expert in radical Islamic groups at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in London.

What Israel can accomplish through its military campaign, others say, is a weakening of Hizbullah's ability to strike Israeli territory with missiles and rockets. But even that effort, they add, comes with collateral risks.

"Can Israel considerably reduce the threat posed by Hizbullah as a paramilitary group? That it can probably do," says Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va. "But will Israel be able to destroy Hizbullah in terms of its identity, the determination of its leadership, the devotion of its followers, and their dedication to continuing the struggle? No, that's not realistic."

The US has some experience with that reality in its pursuit of Al Qaeda, he says. While cautioning against "lumping together" radical Islamic groups, Jenkins says the US has made progress in undermining Al Qaeda's operational capabilities. On the other hand, he cautions, the US has been less successful at reducing the appeal of Al Qaeda's message, which "continues to radicalize and deepen the zeal of large numbers of young Islamic men."

Turning to the US experience in Iraq, Jenkins sees a trajectory that mirrors Israel's. "There is no military challenge in Iraq that can defeat us," he says. "But has our presence reduced a radicalization of parts of the population or pacified the country? No it hasn't."

Even if Israel destroys 80 percent of Hizbullah's arsenal – estimated at more than 12,000 rockets – the supply could be replenished within four months, says Mr. Abedin. Iran, Hizbullah's chief supplier, is capable of manufacturing 10,000 rockets a month of the types Hizbullah is using, he says. "The best Israel may be able to achieve is to make it more difficult for Hizbullah to receive the armament and use it in the future."

Beyond that, Israel's aim is to "impose on the region its military hegemony, and to impress its enemies," Abedin says. "It's showing Iran it is capable of this kind of sustained military campaign."

That will not reduce the long-term threat from the Islamist movement opposing Israel, he says. "Whenever the Israelis use disproportionate force they strengthen their enemies and rally popular support [for them]. The fact Israel hasn't learned this lesson," he adds, "is quite extraordinary."

Jenkins, who has a military background, sees the same dilemma posed by short-term necessities and long-term interests. "Right now, Israel's primary obligation is to end the barrage of rockets and mortars coming into its territory," he says. "But they should also understand that accomplishing that will not do much to advance – and can even complicate – what is, after all, a long-term political fight."

For countries facing this challenge, a priority is "to broaden strategies to be far more effective at political warfare," says Jenkins. In some cases "negotiations are in order," he says, noting that the British negotiated with the IRA and the Spanish with the radical Basque group ETA. The Iraqi government is signalling its willingness to talk with part of the insurgency (the more traditionally political opposition, not the Al Qaeda-inspired forces).

In the long run, military campaigns won't be the answer, most analysts agree. "There may be military battles that have to be fought," says Jenkins, "but the real answer is to focus more on how to diminish the appeal of the radical message."

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