Wednesday, August 15, 2007

JERUSALEM — A focus on counterterrorism and guerrilla warfare in recent decades has weakened Israeli ground forces by creating a mind-set averse to accepting casualties, according to an initial assessment by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Mr. Barak, a former army chief of staff, a former prime minister and arguably Israel’s most decorated soldier, took over the defense portfolio two months ago with a mission to rebuild the army after a disastrous war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon last summer.

Examining the lessons of the war, colleagues say, Mr. Barak has been disturbed by how far the ground army had regressed since fighting in 1982 against Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and the Syrian army in Lebanon.

Meeting last week with reservists from an armored brigade, Mr. Barak was told by a tank gunner that his current tour gave him his first look at a tank shell in five years.

“No one will wait five years before the next live-fire exercise,” Mr. Barak replied.

Before last summer’s war, training had shifted from conventional warfare and the maneuvering of large combat units to small-scale tactics and policing duties.

A lack of training and an aversion to accepting casualties manifested repeatedly last year, Mr. Barak’s assessment found.

In at least one instance, a tank battalion was unable to complete its orders to advance at night through difficult terrain because it had inadequate training in nighttime movement.

In order to understand the army’s disappointing performance last year, in which it failed to dislodge Hezbollah from southern Lebanon or halt the firing of 4,000 rockets into Israel over 34 days, Mr. Barak has been meeting with commanders, troops and retired senior officers who carried out earlier probes into the war.

He was told that the culture of counterterrorist activities had displaced the culture of conventional war.

In Lebanon last year, ground operations reportedly were halted when casualties were taken. In all of Israel’s previous wars, it was a cardinal principle that an attack presses on regardless of casualties, who are retrieved afterward.

This was particularly manifest in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught by a surprise attack by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. Israel’s reserves — two-thirds of its army — were unmobilized, yet the army ended the war 18 days later on the roads to Cairo and Damascus.

In meeting with brigade commanders who fought last year, Mr. Barak was told that they often faced the challenge of whether a mission, which seemed superfluous to them, was worth the risk to the lives of their soldiers.

Mr. Barak replied that this was not a question that should be considered in wartime. Every officer, he said, must act on the assumption that his superiors had good reason for the orders they issued.

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