August 14, 2011

Israel, the United States, and Counterinsurgency

Yesterday, I wrapped up a really fun and interesting trip to Israel and, briefly, the Palestinian Territories. For a long time, I have insisted that there is really no substantive connection between the way in which the United States has waged counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way in which the Israelis have waged what I will call, for lack of a better term, stabilization operations in the Palestinian Territories.

Others, of course, have claimed the United States and Israel have both waged highly similar operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories, respectively. Often this claim is made in some clumsy leftist "America and Israel are evil colonial powers" kind of way and is ignorant of the ways in which each country's military has independently developed doctrine as well as tactics, techniques and procedures. Sometimes, though, this claim is made by serious scholars, such as Laleh Khalili in her recent IJMES article -- with which I strongly disagreed but recommend because I think her argument is carefully researched and interesting.

Balloons have made me reconsider my earlier position.

Last Saturday night, I was walking around the protests in Tel Aviv with Jason Reich and noticed a tethered aerostat high above the crowd. He mentioned Israel had been using the balloons for years, long before we Americans, and sure enough, the following Friday, as crowds flooded into the Old City of Jerusalem for Friday prayers, I saw another aerostat. Bing West has argued U.S. use of aerostat systems in southern Afghanistan has had a revolutionary effect on the battlefield, and I'm pretty sure this is something we either borrowed from the Israelis or learned long after the IDF.

The Israelis learned other lessons from their 2002 campaign in the Palestinian Territories that have also been learned by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. These lessons include the need to push independent intelligence capabilities down to the company level and also to provide miniature UAVs to rifle companies. I'm not sure, but I think the Israelis beat the U.S. military to both of these innovations by a couple of years.

All of this, of course, concerns tactical innovation. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine developed without much input from the IDF or Israeli scholars and practitioners. But on further reflection, I think it is unfair to say, as I have, that the U.S. military has learned little from the Israeli experience in stabilization operations. I also may have underestimated the informal relationships that have been built between officers in the U.S. and Israeli militaries over the years. All of this, of course, would make for a really interesting case study on military innovation and learning.