April 1, 2008  

Hoisted by its own PR

Israel’s gamble on high-risk ops hastened self-defeat in Lebanon

Obscured amid the failures of Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War was the extent to which Tel Aviv’s wartime leaders were willing to wager on speculative, strategically dubious, image-boosting operations.

Part of the Israeli military’s quest for “narrative superiority,” these so-called “consciousness operations” ranged from relatively simple public relations efforts to boost homeland morale to complex psychological, special forces missions designed to trigger strategic change in the Lebanese theater.

In the final analysis, high-risk gambles by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had minimal impact on the evolving theater. They didn’t provide the desired, so-called balance-breaking action that would seismically shift the war in Israel’s favor, but at least they didn’t obstruct ongoing combat.

Ironically, however, it was the relatively simple PR operations — such as the Iwo Jima-style attempt to plant a flag in the Shiite stronghold of Bint Jebail — that proved most damaging. In several cases, the hunger for the ultimate photo op and other artificial indicators of achievement actually jeopardized genuine, hard-fought gains on the ground.

During the 34-day war against Hezbollah, Israel’s high command ordered about two dozen special operations, Israeli author Amir Rapaport reports in “Friendly Fire: How We Defeated Ourselves in the Second Lebanon War.” Most of these air, land and sea ops took place over extended periods north of the Litani River, the strategic finishing line that Israel raced toward, yet failed to reach, in the last days of the war.

And while nearly all of the operations demonstrated extraordinary daring, discipline and skill, only a portion of them targeted medium- and long-range missiles, Syrian resupply missions and other operationally essential targets that would have materially advanced the war effort. The rest were aimed at at ensnaring high-profile prisoners, confiscating war booty and other acts likely to swing the spotlight from failures to sorely lacking successes.

A recently retired member of the IDF General Staff characterized more than half of the wartime special missions as “feel good” operations marginally relevant or even counterproductive to the overall campaign. “Potential benefits were never properly or dispassionately weighed against the enormous operational, intelligence and political costs involved. Otherwise, more than half of them would never have gotten off the ground,” the retired officer said.

An example of such high-risk, strategically low-yield missions was the IDF’s Aug. 1, 2006, operation in Baalbek, about 100 kilometers north of the border, in which more than 200 warriors staged simultaneous raids on a Hezbollah hospital and a neighborhood east of the city. Israeli commandos killed more than 10 Hezbollah men in the four-hour raid before returning home unharmed with computer hard drives, a few Kalashnikov rifles and five innocent captives, including a shepherd boy and a Lebanese cop named Nasrallah.

At a press conference after the operation, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the IDF’s wartime chief of general staff, denied locally published reports that the operation had aimed to kidnap Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. “The mission objective was to demonstrate our ability to operate anywhere in Lebanon … and not to capture anyone specifically,” he said.

But according to the IDF’s own definition of special operations, such missions are distinguished by their inherent ability “to create the physical effects or the intended impact on consciousness” that can directly influence enemy behavior.

In the Israeli government’s official report on the Lebanon War, retired Judge Elyahu Winograd and his four-member panel concluded that special operations conducted during the 34-day campaign did not have “the decisive influence on the results of the war” that Israel’s political and military leaders had expected.

Not only did such operations fail to “impact enemy consciousness” or advance war aims, Winograd suggested they actually could have eroded Israel’s position since decision-makers had pinned such high expectations on the missions.

The page-and-a-half chapter devoted to special operations in the public version of Winograd report noted that political leaders had expected such missions to provide the “balance breaker” that would fundamentally change the Lebanese theater. As a result, leaders permitted themselves to dither over the need for a broad-based ground war, in hopes that a single high-impact special mission could render the matter irrelevant.

Such expectations, wrote Winograd in his typically understated and noncommittal language, “may have contributed to the political echelon’s lack of decisiveness.”

High-Risk Photo Ops

As the war dragged on and Hezbollah continued to pummel the Israeli homeland with daily rocket barrages, IDF leaders turned up the pressure for positive publicity. Tel Aviv brass became increasingly impatient with IDF’s Northern Command for failure to deliver the digital goods, and the frustration in turn filtered down through the chain of command.

In a war plagued by debilitating shortages — where ill-equipped warriors barely beyond the border were forced to skip meals and ration their water supplies — logisticians somehow found ways to equip most frontline battalions and all brigades with video or digital cameras.

Following ground combat, war fighters frequently risked residual enemy fire to satisfy headquarters’ hunger for publication-quality images of dead Hezbollah fighters. Rapaport chronicles an instance in which exhausted warriors returning to Israel for rest and resupply were forced to bear the additional burden of carrying enemy corpses back to the border.

In another account, he describes how warriors fresh from high-intensity combat in Maroun al-Ras were ordered to return to the battle scene to find and photograph fallen enemies.

Rapaport recounts in vivid detail how a battalion commander respectfully but firmly resisted the photographic assignment handed down directly from Halutz. In an encrypted telephone conversation with Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the northern theater commander, the lieutenant colonel held his ground, insisting he was not willing to endanger his soldiers for the sake of photographing corpses.

Adam readily concurred with his lower-level field officer and was left to reckon with Halutz. Failure to deliver the photos and fulfill the mission, wrote Rapaport, contributed to the long list of irritants that eventually led to the theater commander’s de facto dismissal by the IDF chief of staff.

But nowhere did the General Staff’s obsession with symbols prove more devastating to the overall war effort than at Bint Jebail, a tactically insignificant and operationally avoidable point on the map that came to epitomize all the failures and frustrations of the 2006 war.

Battling Symbols

Information now available through the Winograd report and three books published by Israel’s leading correspondents illustrates the extent to which IDF leaders fell victim to their own self-generated psychological warfare.

Bint Jebail, a Shiite town of 30,000 barely four kilometers from the border, housed the former headquarters of the IDF’s coordinating division in Lebanon before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2000. It was from here that Nasrallah took credit for ending Israel’s 18-year occupation, and it was here that the Hezbollah leader planted the seeds that later germinated into the symbol of Israel’s failures in the summer of 2006.

Against the backdrop of IDF-issue vehicles and equipment left in the hasty overnight exit, it was at Bint Jebail that Nasrallah assured followers that continued resistence would ultimately defeat the Zionist enemy. In arrogant rhetoric that made skins crawl beyond the border, Nasrallah equated Israeli strength and resilience to a spider web “that looks strong and threatening from afar, but disintegrates when touched.”

The Winograd report, in an extensive section devoted to the battles at Bint Jebail, noted that initial plans for ground maneuvering action there began July 18, less than a week into the war. From the code name alone — Steel Web — it was clear that a desire to avenge Nasrallah’s spider web speech was a motivating force behind the planned operations.

But the battles at Bint Jebail didn’t have to happen, and their stubborn pursuit by the IDF brass underscored how tragically they confused symbolic significance for sound strategy. Even Winograd investigators lamented that officers at various echelons who challenged the legitimacy of Bint Jebail as a target of large-scale ground war had been overruled.

“There apparently was controversy between those officers who assessed the operational importance of controlling Bint Jebail and those that focused on the ‘consciousness’ and symbolic significance of success in a place that they perceived as an important Hezbollah stronghold, where [Nasrallah] delivered his spider web speech,” according to the report.

Three times the region’s strongest, most technologically advanced military attempted to control the guerilla forces entrenched there. And each time, IDF attempts at ground maneuvering warfare met with failure.

Battalions of infantry, armor and paratroopers were forced to fight in and out of the Hezbollah stronghold, incurring demoralizing casualties from enemy as well as friendly fire with each change of plan from the upper echelons. In one of the biggest absurdities of the war, the IDF had to deploy massive airpower and brigade-sized ground support to enable the 890 Paratrooper Battalion to battle back from its forward position a few kilometers north of Bint Jebail to plant a flag.

After the first failed battles claimed the lives of eight Golani infantrymen from the 51st Brigade, there was an attempt by some commanders to cut their losses at Bint Jebail, according to Amos Harel and Avi Issacharov. Their recently published “Spider Web: The Story of the Second Lebanon War,” provides an exhilarating account of a confrontation at Northern Command headquarters between Brig. Gen. Eyal Ben-Reuven, deputy theater commander, and the IDF chief of staff.

“You’re guilty,” Ben-Reuven was quoted as accusing Halutz in the aftermath of July 26 losses. “Those eight deaths in Bint Jebail are on you.” According to the authors, whose book was subsequently praised by Ben-Reuven and others key IDF figures, the deputy theater commander implored Halutz to halt Bint Jebail operations, warning they were “needless … and would end up costing us dearly.”

Besides Halutz, big supporters of continued Bint Jebail operations were Halutz’s deputy, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Gantz, the wartime commander of Ground Forces Command and the former Bint Jebail-based division commander, whose forces were the last to leave Lebanon during the 2000 withdrawal.

In their book, Harel and Issacharov quote Kaplinsky as acknowledging “the tactical military insignificance” inherent in controlling Bint Jebail. Nevertheless, according to the book, he recommended pressing ahead for the sake of its symbolic importance. “We need to complete what we’re doing in order to tell the story tomorrow,” Kaplinsky was quoted as telling colleagues in that tense, closed-door strategy session at Northern Command headquarters.

But instead of providing the text for the symbolic victory story that would dispel Nasrallah’s spider web theory, the battles at Bint Jebail delivered a perceptive victory into the hands of Hezbollah.

Winograd investigators attributed the military’s infatuation with symbolism and psychological consciousness-altering actions — like its misplaced faith in airpower — on deep-rooted conceptual flaws that require immediate, remedial attention. Exacerbating the conceptual basis for failures was a near-wholesale collapse of professionalism and discipline that investigators said originated in the General Staff and permeated down to brigade levels.

According to the report, mission objectives remained a subject of debate even as soldiers were sent into battle. Altogether, the IDF waged six versions of its Steel Web campiagn, and 11 iterations of its larger ground war, code-named “Change of Direction.” In many other instances, orders were not understood at the lower echelons because of new-age vocabulary adopted by senior commanders.

Investigators singled out Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsh, commander of the 91st Division that led fighting at Bint Jebail, for particular scorn for his use of “creative” and unclear terms divorced from the traditional war-fighting lexicon.

In a subsection on mission definitions and command language, Winograd investigators noted that language that may have been appropriate for very limited urban anti-terror operations in the Palestinian theater did not translate well for the large-scale ground maneuvers attempted at Bint Jebail. They noted four different terms for establishing control over the city, each of which was given to multiple interpretations.

“Communication between commanders created a blurring of operational aims. … We must stress that a common language is a prerequisite for shared understanding and operational coordination, and operational objectives and concepts must be communicated precisely throughout all planning and implementation levels. … At Bint Jebail, the language was not common, not clear and ultimately harmful,” they wrote.

All told, “Not one of the intended results were achieved, neither in the tangible sense or in the realm of perception,” Winograd investigators concluded.

In their final report, the Winograd panel noted that Bint Jebail represented “in a dramatic way” the best and the worst of the IDF. In addition to the multitude of conceptual, operational and command failures, investigators cited extraordinary examples of courage, responsibility, initiative and unwavering resilience under fire.

Eleven Israeli war fighters were killed and 23 wounded in the battles for Bint Jebail. Another 16 were awarded medals of honor and commendation for heroism, a record that surpasses all other battles in Israeli military history.