Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Losing the War

In today's Opinion Journal, Bret Stephens offers an unusually pessimistic assessment of the Israeli campaign in south Lebanon. From his perspective, the verdict is siimple: Israel is losing this war.

According to Mr. Stephens, Israel is heading for defeat (at least in part) because it can't quite define its military objectives, while increasing the timeline for meeting thoes goals. As he observes, the stated Israeli strategy has changed several times since the conflict began; we've noted the same thing, particularly in terms of the shrinking security zone that Israel plans to establish in south Lebanon. At one point over the weekend, an Israeli spokesman spoke in terms of a two-mile buffer zone, a goal that made little sense in terms of preventing rocket strikes into northern Israel, one of the paramount goals of the Israeli campaign.

Stephens also cites the intelligence failures and political missteps that have hindered the Israeli military effort so far. He believes the Israelis have squandered much of the advantage they enjoyed when the war began more than three weeks ago, getting bogged down in a protratced conflict that its key patron (the United States) cannot support indefinitely.

There's more than an element of truth in these accusations. To be sure, Israel has made significant mistakes in the conflict so far. It began the war with inadequate military force on its northern border. Early air strikes seemed more pre-occupied with bean-counting, rather than effects-based operations that would actually degrade Hizballah's military capabilities. In a recent posting, we theorized that Israel's brief bombing halt was more than just a public relations and diplomatic effort--it was also designed to give the IAF a chance to re-evaluate its strategy and fine-tune for a renewed air campaign. And, of course, Prime Minister Olmert's overall strategy seems to be a work in progress.

But there are also hopeful signs that Israel has adopted a vitable plan, and is moving smartly to execute it. Within the last 24 hours, the Israeli security cabinet approved a plan to extend the security zone north to the Latani River--virtually eliminating the rocket threat to northern Israel. Occupying that region will require at least a division-sized force, and there are clear indications that Israel is mobilizing the necessary resources. More than 30,000 reservists have been called up, and roads in norther Israel are lined with tanks, APCs, and trucks, all heading for the Lebanese border. As we recently pointed out, the IDF remains heavily dependent on reserves to execute its combat missions; ground commanders have been awaiting the arrival of more troops before entering Lebanon in force. Yesterday's approval of the "Latani River Plan" suggests that Israel now has the required combat power to meet its mission objectives.

At the same time, there are also indications that Israeli efforts may be having their desired effect. The number of rocket attacks against northern Israel has dropped dramatically over the past 24 hours; a deal is reportedly near to end the Gaza Crisis (Hamas has apparently had enough), and the IAF struck targets near the Syrian border, sending another signal to Damascus. Mr. Stephens seems to think that Bashir Assad is getting off scot-free in the current crises, but he fails to note that Syria is already in a defensive crouch. One reason that Israel may be going to lengths to avoid antagonizing Damascus is that Syria has demonstrated that it won't cross the line in support of Hizballah.

Thirty years from now, the war colleges won't cite the Israeli campaign in Lebanon as a textbook example of modern military operations. But it won't be viewed as a military disaster, either. More than likely, history will record this latest war in south Lebanon as an example of a military power--in this case, Israel--overcoming early, avoidable mistakes, and eventually achieving its military goals. Israel hasn't covered itself in glory (so far), but it's not exactly losing the war, either.

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