Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

The Ground Offensive By George Friedman

What the strategy pundits have to say, with maps … reads as a bit clinical and humanly disengaged to me …
Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting)

Israeli forces are well into their main ground offensive into Lebanon. It is difficult to hide a strategic offensive of this size, but Israel has made no attempt to hide this one at all. The three-week air offensive, followed by the pseudo cease-fire and disagreements in the Israeli Cabinet on strategy, made it necessary for Israel literally to announce its offensive. Ultimately, this gave Hezbollah little advantage. It might have wanted to halt fighting at this point, but it certainly knew that for precisely this reason Israel would have to intensify the fighting. There might be elements of tactical surprise, but strategic surprise is gone.

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Hezbollah is now fighting the war it wanted and prepared for. Its forces are well-dispersed and dug into bunkers. Supplies for extended combat have undoubtedly been distributed in these strongholds so they require no re-supply. Certainly the Israelis will do everything they can to prevent it. Command has clearly devolved to the lowest possible unit, so contact with central headquarters is not necessary for fighting. Hezbollah is not going to be engaged in maneuver. It will fight where it stands.

As we have said before, the strategy looks more like the way the Japanese defended Pacific islands against the U.S. Marines during World War II than anything else. Hezbollah fighters are defending in depth from interlocking strong points. They have constructed these strong points in order to survive artillery and airstrikes. They are forcing the Israelis to close with the strong points and take them in close combat. The Japanese did not necessarily expect to survive the battles. Their goal was to inflict disproportionate casualties on the attacking troops in order to force reconsideration of the strategy of island-hopping and set the stage for a political settlement. The Japanese failed because they underestimated the U.S. capacity for absorbing casualties and the size of the force available. But the strategy, while ineffective, was based on a real confidence that their own forces would be willing to engage in battles of annihilation when it was their own annihilation that was certain, and when their mission was to delay and impose casualties on the enemy.

There are many differences here, but Hezbollah’s core strategy appears to be the same. Its deployment has enormous value if its forces are prepared to fight to the end, imposing time penalties and casualties on Israel. If its strong points can hold out for extended periods of time, some of them firing missiles at Israel, then the Israelis have no option but to close and engage in intense sequential firefights that will take time and cost lives. If it can fight a battle of annihilation yet delay and hurt the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Hezbollah might well force a political settlement. If not, it can still gain a political victory by being the first Arab force to force Israel into high attrition combat.

Therefore, Israel’s strategy must be twofold. First, it must end the war with the catastrophic destruction of Hezbollah’s military capability. It could survive as a political force, but its military strength, and therefore its coercive presence in Lebanon, must be ended. Second, Israel must do this in a time frame and at a cost in casualties that does not allow Hezbollah to claim victory regardless of the consequences to its own forces. Third, it must carry out this operation before U.S. political interests in the region (pressure from allies in Iraq, the Saudis and so forth) force the United States to compel Israel to agree to a genuine cease-fire, as opposed to the pseudo cease-fire engineered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that actually bought Israel more time.

In other words, Hezbollah’s strategy is to force Israel to fight a war that takes as long as possible, using Israeli time urgency to force Israel to move rapidly against strong points incurring maximum casualties. Israel’s strategy is to use its greater mobility and firepower to break Hezbollah as quickly as possible with minimum casualties. The issue is how well-prepared Hezbollah’s defenses actually are and how well-motivated its troops are after a three-week bombing campaign. How long can Hezbollah maintain its tempo of operations on a tactical level?

Israel’s strength is in its firepower and its mobility. Its mobility has value primarily when fighting against a force with a substantial logistical tail. Cutting nonexistent supply lines against a force that has its supplies organically attached to it does not allow encirclement to take place. This limits the utility of dynamic mobile operations in most senses. There is one sense, however, that allows this to go on.

One of Israel’s strategic goals, apart from crushing Hezbollah, is eliminating Hezbollah’s ability to fire rockets and missiles into Israel, and particularly to Haifa and points south. It is difficult to know precisely the range of Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles and how many they have, but it is clear that simply attacking Lebanon south of the Litani River will not solve that problem. To guarantee an end to rocket attacks, we estimate Israel will have to push Hezbollah back to Riyaq to end the threat from Zelzal-2 rockets, to Baalbek to protect Tel Aviv, and to Hermel to protect Haifa. To protect against the Fajr-5, Israel will have to push as deep as 10 miles north of the Litani along the coast. It is possible to bomb launchers and storage sites, and Israel can hit what it knows about, but the problem is it cannot have certain knowledge of what it knows unless it goes in on the ground. Intelligence is never as good as going and seeing.

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This means if Israel wants to destroy all of Hezbollah’s military force and destroy existing threats from rockets, it will have to do more than attack Lebanon south of the Litani. It will have to go deep into the Bekaa Valley and it will have to go north of the Litani along the coast. Logic has it that Israel would therefore attempt to encircle south Lebanon along the Litani and move into the Bekaa Valley and north along the coast to isolate Hezbollah from support before dealing with intense fighting in southern Lebanon. This poses obvious logistical problems, since two armored thrusts would have to be supported by relatively few roads leading out of the Israeli panhandle in the north; Israel would want to capture roads in southeastern Lebanon near Metulla in preparation for such a thrust.

It appears (and this is from far away) that is what Israel is doing. Israeli troops are engaged in four separate locations across southern Lebanon, and have reportedly pushed as deep as several miles past the Lebanese border. IDF units remain in Maroun al-Ras, although the town of Bent Jbail has reportedly been devastated and abandoned. Paratroopers are in Aita el-Shaab to the west, where Hezbollah has said there is house-to-house fighting; four Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed. The Golani and Nahal brigades continue to battle Hezbollah in the villages of Al Adisa, Kfar Kila and Taibe, with reports of fighting as far north as Marjayoun. Approximately 60 IDF D9 armored Caterpillar bulldozers are flattening abandoned Hezbollah positions across southern Lebanon. An Israeli airstrike targeted a westbound road out of Hermel with five air-to-surface missiles in the northern Bekaa Valley. The main border crossing from Beirut to Damascus at Masnaa was also struck.

These are fragmentary reports available by wire services. They are far from defining what is happening on the ground. But what seems to be happening is the IDF is engaging forces in the south carefully while action is taking place in the east and west. The remaining strategic question is whether Israel will focus on southern Lebanon and leave the missile threat and a large part of Hezbollah forces out of its plans, or whether it will drive into the Bekaa and up the coast to deal with Hezbollah in detail. It would seem to us that this would give Israel the maximum advantage, dealing with Hezbollah more completely, taking advantage of its greater mobility and air power and using artillery and airstrikes to grind down Hezbollah and attempt to break its morale in the south. What is unknown, of course, is the disposition and capabilities of Hezbollah north of the Litani and in the Bekaa. We suspect the Israelis might find the same resistance in the Bekaa as in the border region.

In the long run, the correlation of forces dictates Israeli victory. But there are other variables. Time and casualties could turn a military success into a political defeat for Israel. Moreover, if the outcome of the attack is that Israel is forced to occupy Lebanese territory for an extended period of time, then the cost of counterinsurgency operations mount. Israel’s strategy is clear. Move in fast, deal a catastrophic blow to Hezbollah, withdraw leaving the Lebanese army or a European peacekeeping force in its place. Hezbollah has drawn Israel in. It expects a catastrophic blow but its intention is to impose tremendous costs on Israel and then create a situation in which peacekeeping forces will not deploy, forcing Israel into a counterinsurgency.

So, the questions now are whether Israel moves north of the Litani, how long Hezbollah will resist and what the cost will be to Israel. Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the IDF and architect of that air campaign, was hospitalized for the second time July 31, complaining of stomach pains. Should Halutz go out of commission, his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky, will take command. Kaplinsky is drawn from army, having commanded the Golani Brigade, with long experience in Lebanon. This brings expertise on ground warfare to the top spot in the IDF, particularly in combined infantry-armored operations in Lebanon. Israel has focused down on the main battle now. Hezbollah has been focused for a while. As the cliche goes, the outcome is in doubt, in large part because like all wars, the end of this one is political — and the intersection of the political with the military complicates the war enormously.Send questions or comments on this article to [email protected].

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This entry was posted on 1 August, 2006 by in Geopolitics, Israel, Lebanon.

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"