In the modern era, Islamic militaries are 0 and 6 against Western militaries when fighting wars Western style. Israel prevailed against a host of neighboring enemies in the War of Independence followed by Suez, 1956, the Six Day War, 1967, and Yom Kippur, 1973. American victories against Saddam Hussein in Desert Storm and the Taliban in Afghanistan complete the tale of Islamic humiliation in regular warfare. But dimmed in Western military memory is the realization that the box score of Islam’s fight against the West in irregular wars is 4-0-1: Lebanon in 2000, two Intifadas and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. America’s war against al Qaeda in Iraq is going into extra innings and is still too close to call.
Hezbollah, like al Qaeda, can read a scorecard. They may be fanatical but they’re not stupid. Win or lose their experience in Lebanon will reaffirm the wisdom of their commitment to fight wars against the West using their own unique style of war, one that makes a virtue of tribalism and allegiance to the clan and one that rewards rather than punishes a lack of structure, doctrinal consistency and military order.
Hezbollah has relearned some old lessons. They have learned painfully that they cannot fight in what Western military theorists call the “middle of the conflict spectrum.” It is here that Western powers are best able to concentrate air, sea, space platforms and heavy armor to defeat Islamic armies in conventional battle. So the enemy has concluded that they must fight at the ends of the spectrum. On the right of the spectrum is Armageddon, nuclear war. Preferable and seductive to be sure in the long run. But they aren’t quite there yet.
On the left is unconventional war. Draw the enemy into “contested zones,” the argument goes, where refuge in rugged, crowded and inhospitable places makes the fight against western style armies an even match. Of course Hezbollah understands that an even match is uneven when the side that reveres death faces an enemy who fears it.
But the unconventional warfare of T.E. Lawrence’s day doesn’t fit with the impatience of Hezbollah’s masters in Tehran. Some accelerant is needed to turn a smoldering insurgence into a firestorm. The war in Lebanon has demonstrated that Hezbollah’s answer is technology, just sophisticated enough to be effective as a terror weapon but not so sophisticated that it becomes marginalized or destroyed by Western countermeasures.
Unguided rockets are perfect terror weapons. They fly too low to be shot down by Israel. Katyushas are too small and move out too quickly after launch to be detected easily by Israeli aircraft. They are grossly inaccurate and not terribly lethal. Yet the randomness that comes with inaccuracy makes them particularly effective at striking fear into civilian populations. Londoners during the 1940 blitz held up well when Luftwaffe bombers leveled entire city blocks. But they were unnerved two years later when Hitler sent V-1 buzz bombs over London because these weapons landed randomly without any apparent sense of purpose. Fear among Londoners was greatest during that frightful interval between the time the buzzing stopped and the explosion shook the city. Everyone within earshot heard the deafening silence and thought the bomb was aimed right at them.
Katyushas have had a similar impact on Israelis. The rockets continue to fly. Traumatized citizens demand action. Over-reaction by the Israeli air force enhances Hezbollah in the eyes of its Arab constituencies, emboldens them to improve a method of war that suits them so well and diminishes the credibility and military reputation of Israel in the eyes of the world.
Islamic terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda are adaptive institutions. Experience in Lebanon has again proven the truism that insurgents don’t have to contract with one of the big five weapons makers to achieve success on the battlefield. They only have to adapt existing weapons in a creative fashion to meet a single, focused tactical purpose. Israeli claims of dead terrorists or estimates of destroyed rockets and launchers are irrelevant to an enemy who understands that the purpose of these wars is to use terror inducing technologies to influence opinions and shape perceptions.
Terrorist groups understand that Western technology can be defeated with creativity and determination. The perception of success against the Israeli military will have a lasting effect on the ability of the United States to fight the long war against terrorism using our high tech military. The battle for control of southern Lebanon has become the key laboratory for radical Islamic groups to sample and apply elsewhere… like Iraq.
Our enemies are watching, adapting and changing to perfect a method of war uniquely theirs. They will continue to look for technologies that offer them an advantage. We should learn from the Israeli experience. If the past is prologue, we will continue to find ourselves confronted by an enemy who seeks to adapt technologies that will help him to win his war his way.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.