April 06, 2009

Arguing the 2006 War

Greg Jaffe has an A1 article in today's Washington Post all about the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah and the way in which the war is used in contemporary U.S. defense policy debates. Jaffe starts with a simple question: Why, despite fighting in two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that both offer all kinds of lessons of their own, is the U.S. military spending so much of its time and money studying the 2006 war?

...the Defense Department has dispatched as many as a dozen teams to interview Israeli officers who fought against Hezbollah. The Army and Marine Corps have sponsored a series of multimillion-dollar war games to test how U.S. forces might fare against a similar foe. "I've organized five major games in the last two years, and all of them have focused on Hezbollah," said Frank Hoffman, a research fellow at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico.

Steve Biddle, per usual, has the answer to the question Jaffe is asking:

"The Lebanon war has become a bellwether," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command. "If you are opposed to transforming the military to fight low-intensity wars, it is your bloody sheet. It's discussed in almost coded communication to indicate which side of the argument you are on."

Here's the problem with that, though. As Jaffe notes toward the end of the article, the 2006 war is a kind of Rorschach test that does not so much point toward obvious conclusions but rather highlights pre-existing biases on the part of those researchers looking to draw conclusions. Personally, I believe you can take any number of important lessons from the war and can use the war writ large to argue all sides of the ongoing defense debates. If you just look at the war within the 34 days of open fighting, for example, it is clear the Israelis allowed their conventional war-fighting skills to atrophy as they engaged in low-intensity operations in the Palestinian territories between 2000 and 2006. But if you look at the war from the other side of the border -- which few studies have done -- you see the way that, over a span of time beyond the 34 days of open fighting, Hizballah employed non-kinetic lines of operation (to include information operations and the provision of essential services to their population), to virtually ensure that no matter how the Israelis performed operationally, they would have a tough time winning strategically. Or, to put it another way,

"Even if the Israelis had done better operationally, I don't think they would have been victorious in the long run," said Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who has studied the battle from southern Lebanon. "For the Israelis, the war lasted for 34 days. We tend to forget that for Hezbollah, it is infinite."

So there are lessons to be found in the 2006 war for Cold Warriors and COINdinistas alike. What we should do, instead, is study the wars we are actually fighting. That will cost guys like me several thousand dollars in consulting fees each year for those war games Frank Hoffman mentions, but it makes a lot more sense to study the wars in which Americans are actually fighting and dying than it does to study a war whose lessons are only vaguely applicable to the future of American war.

(Unless, of course, these drug wars in Mexico lead to the rise of some Hassan Nasrallah figure who starts lobbing Katyushas over the border into El Paso. Then it's game on.)