Resurrected from the ashes of Vietnam, population-centric counterinsurgency, known as COIN by its practitioners, has returned to prominence in Iraq and Afghanistan and is fast becoming the new American way of war. Based on alleged “lessons of history” from such twentieth-century battlefields as Malaya, Algeria and Vietnam, COIN rejects heavy-handed tactics in favor of a strategy of winning over the population through minimizing the use of force, improving its security and addressing its political grievances. With the counterinsurgency camp, led by Gen. David Petraeus, prominent at the highest levels of the US military, the principles and ideas embodied in the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, published in 2006, now permeate military planning and training.

Although COIN is widely embraced across the American political spectrum, one of the few sites of pushback against it is increasingly found within the US military itself. The primary concern raised in these quarters is not that COIN is necessarily wrong about the lessons of the past, but that it may be wrong in its lessons for the future.

Defending Convention

For many military critics of COIN, the future of war is not to be found in the steamy jungles of Vietnam but rather on the rocky hillsides of southern Lebanon, where Israel was fought to a standstill by the guerrilla army of Hizballah in the summer of 2006. Israel possesses one of the world’s most powerful and technologically sophisticated militaries, yet Hizballah was not only able to withstand overwhelming firepower and to fire rockets deep into Israel, but also to inflict significant damage on its opponent. Unlike the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, who employed mostly hit-and-run tactics, Hizballah fighters often held their ground and even maneuvered against Israeli forces in lengthy battles. They intercepted Israeli battlefield communications, shot down an advanced helicopter and even struck an Israeli naval ship with a cruise missile.

The main lesson for many from the relatively conventional war Hizballah fought against Israel in 2006 is that the US military has gone too far in its embrace of COIN at the expense of preparing to fight high-intensity conventional wars against future Hizballahs. For example, USA Today reported that many military officials were increasingly concerned that “counterinsurgency tactics…could leave US forces vulnerable to the kind of coordinated attacks that stymied Israel” in 2006. [1] Moreover, senior Pentagon planners and official are reportedly using a classified study of the 2006 war produced by the Center for Army Analysis to retool the US military’s combat strategy for future wars, including a greater emphasis on heavily armored vehicles, body armor and tactical unmanned systems. The Washington Post reported that

Army generals have also latched on to the Lebanon war to build support for multibillion-dollar weapons programs that are largely irrelevant to low-intensity wars such as those fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 30-page internal Army briefing, prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior Pentagon civilians, recently sought to highlight how the $159 billion Future Combat Systems, a network of ground vehicles and sensors, could have been used to dispatch Hizballah’s forces quickly and with few American casualties.

But perhaps the most stinging “lesson” derived from the 2006 war, the Post continued, is that many top Army officials contend that the 2006 war amounts to “almost a morality play that illustrates the price of focusing too much on counterinsurgency wars at the expense of conventional combat.” [2] Echoing many Israeli commentators, they claim that years of counterinsurgency operations by the Israeli army against Palestinians seriously diminished its conventional capabilities. West Point professor Col. Gian Gentile, a leading critic of the military’s embrace of COIN, contends that the US Army has already become like Israel’s, “so focused on irregular and counterinsurgency warfare that it can no longer fight large battles against a conventional enemy.” [3]
These claims have drawn strong responses from COIN advocates. Petraeus’ former chief of staff Col. Pete Mansoor, responding to Gentile in Small Wars Journal, a publication devoted to counterinsurgency issues, asserted that “the belief that an army that focuses on counterinsurgency warfare cannot at the same time fight well in conventional combat is a false dichotomy.”

But such responses typically fail to address the faulty premises about the 2006 war upon which COIN critics base their critiques, especially their disregard for the actual reasons why Israel failed to achieve its military goals against Hizballah, because to do so would illustrate the serious limits of both conventional and COIN approaches in such wars of the future.

“We Need Half That”

To begin with, the premise that Israel fared poorly in Lebanon in 2006 because it had over-learned COIN is belied by the fact that its army has never practiced COIN in the sense of seeking to win over the Palestinian population through minimizing force and meeting its legitimate grievances with regard to ending Israel’s occupation. To the contrary, during the years prior to the Lebanon war, Israel had fought a largely conventional war in the Occupied Territories, unleashing overwhelming force against both Palestinian militants and the civilian population in an attempt to cause them to abandon their political goals and prevent any diplomatic opening. The Israeli army’s poor showing in Lebanon had more to do with hubris derived from its fearsome power in Gaza and the West Bank, laboratories of urban warfare tactics and destructive technologies, some of which were adopted by the US in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Although widely criticized after the 2006 war for his role in developing faulty doctrine, Israeli Brig. Gen. Shimon Naveh has offered this astute observation:

The point is, the Israel Defense Forces fell in love with what it was doing with the Palestinians. In fact it became addictive. You know when you fight a war against a rival who is by all means inferior to you, you may lose a guy here or there, but you’re in total control. [4]

Moreover, the premise that Israel could have been more successful had it only fought a more conventional war against Hizballah ignores the fact that Israel’s military failures in Lebanon are largely attributable to a new conventional warfighting doctrine based on tenets of techno-centric warfare championed by the Pentagon over the past few decades. Proponents of techno-centric warfare believe that the 1990-1991 Gulf war and the Kosovo campaign of 1999, where NATO forces methodically bombed not only military targets but tunnels, bridges and roads for over 70 days before forcing Serbian forces to withdraw, proved it was possible to use air power and precision munitions to achieve strategic objectives without resorting to traditional ground operations. Unfortunately for Israel, its armed forces chief of staff in 2005, Dan Halutz, the first air force commander appointed to this position in Israel’s history, warmly embraced this new doctrine, going so far as to suggest in 2001 that Israel might need “to part with the concept of a land battle” altogether. [5] According to Seymour Hersh, the Israelis seized upon NATO’s Kosovo campaign as a template for their war plan in Lebanon; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was allegedly told by the Israelis, “You did it in about 70 days [in Kosovo], but we need half of that — 35 days.” [6]

The war Israel waged after Hizballah’s provocative cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured, was a classic example of techno-centric warfare. In the days that followed, Israel unleashed its high-tech aerial arsenal against Hizballah’s command systems and Lebanese infrastructure through escalating attacks designed to produce “effects” that would drive Hizballah out of southern Lebanon and pressure the government to disarm them. [7] One of Israel’s major military objectives was to isolate Hizballah fighters within a “killing box” in southern Lebanon by forcing out all civilians, which led Israel to strike roads, bridges, seaports and airports throughout Lebanon as well as hitting gasoline stations and food stores to ensure that civilians could not endure a siege in the south. [8] The Washington Post reported:

According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of [Israel’s military] campaign is to “create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hizballah supporters.” The message to Lebanon’s elite, he said, is this: “If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hizballah-land. [9]

Almost everything about Israel’s new conventional doctrine was found wanting in the 34-day war. More to the point, Israel’s campaign in Lebanon was actually a classic example of what military historians call the “strategic bombing fallacy,” which refers to the inflated belief that bombing “strategic” targets such as command centers and civilian infrastructure can incapacitate enemy ground forces and inflict such pain on a population that it will pressure its leaders to surrender or compromise.

On the one hand, Israel failed to incapacitate Hizballah’s forces because it was simply impossible to eliminate the thousands of mobile, hidden and easily resupplied rockets that Hizballah had squirreled away in underground tunnels and bunkers dug deeply into Lebanon’s rocky hills over the previous five years. [10] Hizballah had, in fact, anticipated what Israel might try, specifically the heavy reliance on air power and precision weapons and the limited use of ground forces. Moreover, Hizballah’s organizational design proved resilient to air power, having evolved into what British general Rupert Smith termed a “rhizomatic” command system that operated both above ground, to be visible in the political arena, and underground, where the system was composed of discrete groups with little operational contact with one another. [11] Writing in the Armed Forces Journal, Ralph Peters commented, “We need to recognize that Hizballah has prepared itself better for a war against military superiority than any other military organization of our time…. If David didn’t kill Goliath this time, he certainly gave the big guy a headache.” [12]

And on the other hand, Israel’s strategy failed to compel the weak Lebanese government to confront Hizballah, because the civilian casualties and wanton destruction caused by the bombardment infuriated the Lebanese population. It was a double negative: Israel’s offensive was positioned as disproportionate in the eyes of most Lebanese, and in those of the international community, which began to demand a ceasefire. At the end of the conflict, Amnesty International found that Israel had killed over 1,000 civilians, and destroyed over 15,000 homes, 120 bridges, 94 roads, 24 fuel stations and 900 factories, undoing nearly 15 years of post-civil war reconstruction. [13]

This is not to say, however, that Israel would have been better served by launching a conventional ground invasion of southern Lebanon to root out Hizballah, which many in Israel continue to insist would have been decisive. Given Hizballah’s demonstrated prowess in protracted guerilla warfare and the fact that by 2006 the Islamist party was embedded in Lebanese society through its vast network of schools, hospitals and charities, it is doubtful that an Israeli ground invasion would have been any more successful than the one carried out in 1982, which led to the creation of Hizballah in the first place. As the counterinsurgency analyst Andrew Exum points out, “No military on the planet could have been expected to destroy the organization in 34 days of fighting.” [14]

The Right Lessons

But the ultimate source of Israel’s failures in the war has less to do with tactical and doctrinal deficiencies than with the questionable decision to go to war in the first place.

Hizballah’s primary goal in its abduction of Israeli soldiers was to exchange them for Lebanese prisoners of war taken by the Israelis during its occupation of Lebanon, something it had done several times before, while also hoping that dramatic action against its unpopular enemy would quell mounting pressure within Lebanon to disband its militia. But while Hizballah’s decision to provoke Israel was both illegitimate and ill conceived, the severity of Israel’s response strongly indicates that Israel had been waiting for an opportunity to launch an aggressive strategic war against Hizballah.

There is considerable evidence that Israel, with US involvement and support, had been planning for such an opportunity for several years. [15] For both Israel and the US, Hizballah’s ongoing support for Palestinian militants, its status as an Iranian counterattack option in any future war on Iran and its leading role as an opponent of Western regional dominance had given rise to the belief that Hizballah had to be dealt a withering blow. Condoleezza Rice indicated the strategic nature of the war when she described it as signaling “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” and President George W. Bush affirmed that “the current crisis is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror in the Middle East.” [16] In this respect, it is telling that the Winograd commission of inquiry appointed by the Israeli government to examine its own conduct strongly criticized the abrupt rush to war. In findings published on the Israeli foreign ministry’s website, the commission wrote:

In making the decision to go to war, the government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of “containment,” or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the “escalation level,” or military preparations without immediate military action — as to maintain for Israel the full range of responses to the abduction.

The actual lessons of Israel’s unsuccessful 2006 war are easily summarized. Locked into overconfidence in the efficacy of conventional military force, Israel launched an illegitimate war of choice that underestimated its opponent and harmed the civilian population, which turned against it. Most importantly, it failed to address the deeper political origins of its continuing conflict with Hizballah. Although Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, the unilateral departure did not bring about peace on the border because Israel did not negotiate a lasting settlement based on ending its occupation of Arab lands, the core issue that legitimates Hizballah’s retention of a militia in the eyes of many in the region.

What is remarkable about the catalogue of Israeli errors is the extent to which Israel was mimicking the American way of war, notably the wildly misplaced optimism about the use of overwhelming force in Iraq and Afghanistan that led the US military to turn to COIN as a remedy.

Nevertheless, the notion that Israel, or the US for that matter, would be better served by adopting COIN is equally misguided. There is certainly no question that the Israelis could take a few lessons from America’s new COIN playbook, which enumerates a list of “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” that include “sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is” and “sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” But the fundamental problem with COIN, pointed out by some of the military’s more acute COIN critics, is that it is little more than a tactical response to a situation that one would be better off avoiding in the first place, which is as true for Iraq as it is for Lebanon.

Unfortunately, proponents of COIN maintain that the lesson of the “surge” in Iraq is that counterinsurgency works. The US, they say, has mastered the best practices to prevail in such conflicts, of which what they term the “long war” against militant Islamism will likely bring more. [17] Yet the danger of COIN, like techno-centric warfare doctrine, is that it will lead to more, not less, misplaced faith in military interventions in what are, at root, political and social conflicts around the world. As the COIN critic Gian Gentile warns, “The new American way of war has eclipsed the execution of sound strategy, producing never-ending campaigns of nation-building and attempts to change entire societies in places like Afghanistan.” [18] Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and former Army colonel, puts it more bluntly: “If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes?” [19]

The lessons of the 2006 war may actually contain a morality play of another sort for both Israel and the United States. No matter how great their tactical innovations, they cannot overcome strategic and political weaknesses. Neither Israel nor the US has reached the stage of recognizing that they cannot maintain security through military power and must address the roots of the conflicts they confront if they are to live in peace. But it is possible that the debates over Israel’s 2006 war could lead to a new way of thinking if its lessons are properly understood and heeded.


[1] USA Today, February 14, 2008.
[2] Washington Post, April 6, 2009.
[3] Gian Gentile, “Misreading the Surge Threatens US Army’s Conventional Capabilities,” World Politics Review, March 4, 2008.
[4] Matt Matthews, Interview with Shimon Naveh (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, November 2007).
[5] Sarah E. Kreps, “The 2006 Lebanon War: Lessons Learned,” Parameters (Spring 2007).
[6] Seymour Hersh, “Watching Lebanon,” New Yorker, August 21, 2006.
[7] The most comprehensive military analysis of the war can be found in Matt Matthews, We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War (Carlisle, PA: US Army Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008).
[8] See Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 137-138.
[9] Washington Post, July 25, 2006.
[10] Washington Post, August 17, 2006.
[11] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), p. 332.
[12] Ralph Peters, “Lesson from Lebanon,” Armed Forces Journal (October 2006).
[13] See Amnesty International, Deliberate Destruction or “Collateral Damage”? Israeli Attacks on Civilian Infrastructure (London, August 2006).
[14] Andrew Exum, “Drawing the Right Lessons from Israel’s War with Hizb Allah,” CTC Sentinel 1/4 (March 2008).
[15] San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 2006.
[16] New York Times, July 31, 2006.
[17] See David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[18] Gian Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters (Autumn 2009).
[19] Andrew Bacevich, “Raising Jihad,” The National Interest, March 2, 2009.

How to cite this article:

Steve Niva "Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Israel’s 2006 War," Middle East Report 255 (Summer 2010).

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