No Hope for a Military Solution in the Middle East

Collisions in the Middle East in recent weeks have emphasized a profound fact about warfare: guerrilla forces cannot be defeated by conventional armies. We must give up any hope of settling the differences in that part of the world by military action.

A most dramatic and instructive event occurred on July 26, 2006, when an Israeli unit went into the town of Bint Jbail, only a short distance inside the Lebanese border, to eliminate Hezbollah fighters. An Israeli engineering outfit had already cleared away bunkers and mines, and paratroopers had already killed many Hezbollah fighters in the town. The infantry was meant to secure the territory and expand the Israeli offensive.

But over 100 Hezbollah guerrillas had infiltrated back into Bint Jbail, and they were waiting in ambush when the infantry walked in. The Israelis lost eight men killed almost immediately, and over a score of wounded. From buildings all around, guerrillas fired small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, antitank missiles, and mortar rounds. It took nearly an hour for Israelis troops to return fire because they had trouble identifying where the shooting was coming from.

Reinforcing the Israeli soldiers and getting out the wounded took up much of the day. The closest a helicopter could land without being in Hezbollah’s line of fire was two miles away. Soldiers had to carry their wounded comrades under fire to reach the choppers.

Here in a microcosm is the nature of guerrilla warfare. When a conventional army invades a country embarked on guerrilla warfare, native fighters can always strike from ambush, withdraw undetected into the civilian population, and then strike out again whenever they choose. The conventional army cannot do this. It cannot hide in the civilian population, and is always a visible target. Any society that supports a clandestine war and that possesses strong leadership, as Hezbollah does, can resist conventional forces indefinitely.

The only way ordinary armies can halt guerrilla resistance is to eliminate or displace the entire civilian population, and therefore destroy the places where guerrillas can hide. This is not a solution, of course, because world opinion will never accept an invaders’ destruction of a civilian population in order to get at the guerrillas. Accordingly, the only way a guerrilla war can end is for the invading army to withdraw from its occupation.

For this reason Israel has decided not to attempt to occupy a buffer zone up to the Litani River in Lebanon in order to push the Hezbollah back beyond the range of the rockets and missiles they have been raining down on northern Israel.

Israel therefore faces an almost impossible problem. In most successful guerrilla struggles, the occupying army eventually withdraws and peace ensues. This was the outcome of the Vietnam War when Communist guerrillas induced the United States to leave in 1973. But Hezbollah, irrespective of whether Israeli forces withdraw from Lebanon or not, is determined to continue sending missiles into Israel. The same situation applies to Hamas in Gaza. Hamas, too, refuses to make peace and continues to send rockets into Israel.

The guilt for the current war lies entirely with the two terrorist organizations, Hezbollah and Hamas. However, Israeli air and other strikes against cities and infrastructure in Lebanon and Gaza are costing so many civilian lives and causing so much destruction of property that Israel’s actions—however motivated by its right to self-defense—are arousing intense revulsion throughout the world.

Israel cannot eliminate Hezbollah or Hamas by military action. The only solution must be political. Whether this can come about is increasingly doubtful. We can hope that an international military force can be inserted into southern Lebanon that will stop Hezbollah from firing missiles into Israel. And perhaps Israeli actions can finally end the Hamas rocket attacks. But a truce is all we can aspire to, not a permanent solution and peace.

The situation is practically identical in Iraq. There “sectarian violence” is making Iraq’s fledgling democracy unworkable. Sunni death squads and Shiite militias are killing innocent people every day. Suicide bombers are turning Baghdad into a zone of terror. It is idle to argue whether Iraq is or is not in a civil war. Whatever one calls it, the society is splintered, and is splintering more so every day.

Hopes that the American military can stem this violence and bring the two sides to an agreeable settlement are also idle. The only people who can settle this dispute are the Iraqis themselves. American forces in Iraq are in precisely the same situation as Israeli forces in Lebanon—they are visible targets, and, as outsiders, will be blamed by the other side for whichever side they take. Since this forces Americans to be neutral, they no longer have any role in solving Iraq’s problems..

The attacks in Iraq are the same as those by the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza—killers or insurgents or guerrillas, whatever their names, are emerging from the civilian population to make their strikes, and then are returning to the civilian population where they are extremely difficult to locate. Even if they are found and attacked, the likelihood of killing the innocent people they are living amongst is immense. The “collateral damage” of such attacks is rendering them counterproductive in nearly all cases. We cannot go on in this fashion.

We do owe an obligation to the democratic government of Iraq that we nursed into being. Therefore, we must protect this government until it is able to stand on its own. But our military is becoming a liability in Iraq, not an asset. The best solution would be to withdraw American troops as soon as possible, and to station Special Forces and aircraft in Kuwait and nearby places in the Persian Gulf region. In the event that the Iraqi government’s army and police are unable to control or defeat particularly violent challenges, we could go to the government’s assistance in a matter of hours.

But the United States military has no possibility of resolving the disputes in Iraq on its own and by military force. The only solution in Iraq, as it is in Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza, is for the people at last to put down their weapons and agree to live in peace.

<< More Commentary by Bevin Alexander

<< Back to top