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The Petraeus Model Won’t Work for Israel

Andrew Exum, founder of the fine counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama, wrote a short piece for the New York Times in which he suggested Israelis could learn something from Americans in Iraq and make a greater effort to reduce civilian casualties during future conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.

“[I]t may be in the best interests of the dominant military actor to adhere to rules of engagement that go beyond the laws of land warfare and international conventions,” he wrote. “The time may arrive when Israel decides that highly kinetic, enemy-centric military operations do not necessarily serve Israel’s longer-term strategic aims. Instead, Israel may want to adopt lessons learned from the United States experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and place a higher emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties at the expense of lethality and force protection.”

Israelis already go far out of their way to reduce civilian casualties, even when doing so puts the lives of their own soldiers at risk. Nevertheless, as Exum says, the Unites States goes even further. When General David Petraeus took over as commander in Iraq, protecting civilians from insurgent and terrorist violence was made top priority. The most effective way to protect the lives of American soldiers, it was decided,  was by first protecting the lives of Iraqi civilians. This, I believe, is what Exum is getting at. He’s a former U.S. Army captain in Iraq, and he knows what he’s talking about.

The Army’s new counterinsurgency manual explains why this works. “Ultimate success in COIN [counterinsurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained…These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.”

David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus, said something similar in an interview published in yesterday’s Washington Post when asked which lessons learned in Iraq can be applied in Afghanistan. “I would say there are three,” he said. “The first one is you’ve got to protect the population. Unless you make people feel safe, they won’t be willing to engage in unarmed politics. The second lesson is, once you’ve made people safe, you’ve got to focus on getting the population on your side and making them self-defending. And then a third lesson is, you’ve got to make a long-term commitment.”

Unfortunately, this won’t work in Gaza and Lebanon. At least it won’t work right now. Lebanese and Palestinian civilians don’t need nearly as much protection from Hezbollah and Hamas as Iraqis needed from Al Qaeda and sectarian death squads.

Hamas has been waging a murder and intimidation campaign against the rival Fatah party in Gaza, and Hezbollah violently seized West Beirut for a few days last May, but neither group wantonly massacres Palestinian or Lebanese civilians on a regular basis. Hamas is opposed by a significant number of Palestinians, and Hezbollah is met by even more resistance in Lebanon, but neither faces molten hatred from their own long-brutalized civilian population. General Petraeus’s strategy never would have worked if insurgents in Iraq resembled Hamas and Hezbollah and directed most of their violent energy against foreign enemies. General Petraeus effectively won the Iraq war because the enemy in Iraq killed more Iraqis than anyone else.

Plenty of Lebanese and Palestinians hate Hezbollah and Hamas, but they don’t worry they’ll be killed in a massacre of random civilians tomorrow. If Hamas exploded car bombs every day in downtown Gaza City, Israelis might have a shot at waging an American-style counterinsurgency. Palestinians might very well welcome the Israeli destruction of Hamas even if they still didn’t think much of Israel.

Anti-Israeli sentiment is much deeper and broader in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza than anti-Americanism has ever been in Iraq. Israelis have no chance of getting the majority of Lebanese or, especially, Palestinians onto their side right now. They have little political capital in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, and they won’t be able to acquire much more no matter what they do under the present regional circumstances.

“It makes no sense to a Palestinian to think about a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Martin Kramer from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said to me a few months ago in Tel Aviv. “From the Palestinian perspective, Israel will always exist inside Palestine.”

America has never existed inside Iraq the way Israel exists “inside Palestine,” from the Palestinian point of view. No Iraqi thinks New York and Washington belong to Iraq, but a huge number of Palestinians believe Jerusalem and Tel Aviv should be incorporated into a Palestinian state. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the mother of all quagmires. It has been raging for more than sixty years now, with no end in sight, while the American-led war in Iraq is winding down after six.

Kilcullen’s third point, “you’ve got to make a long-term commitment,” is also critical here. There is almost no chance Israelis will make a long-term commitment in Gaza, and there’s even less chance they’ll do it in Lebanon. Hardly anyone in Israel is interested in reconquering Gaza. A long-term occupation of Lebanon is about as popular an idea in Israel as re-igniting the Vietnam War is inside the United States. Israelis likely don’t have the manpower for that even if they wanted to do it. Effective American-style counterinsurgency takes years to succeed.

None of this means Israelis shouldn’t continue to keep civilian casualties at a minimum, as long as their efforts don’t void their right and ability to defend themselves when attacked. Any reasonable person should hope to see fewer women and children killed in Gaza and Lebanon. The strongest case to be made here is on moral and ethical grounds. Israelis, to their credit, fret about killing innocents because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t gain much strategically or politically from it.


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