From Andrew Exum
A few weeks ago, I stood in front of a roomful of U.S. Marine Corps officers at Quantico and spoke at length about Hezbollah, the Shia militant group whose military successes against Israel have alternately inspired the Arab public and frightened the ruling Sunni regimes of the Arab world. The Marine Corps has a rather ugly history with Shia militants in Lebanon, dating back to the 1983 suicide attack that killed 241 U.S. servicemen and led former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage to declare that Hezbollah owed a “blood debt” to the United States.
In light of this history and my audience, I advanced a somewhat controversial proposition—one to which other contributors to this blog might take exception. As military professionals and analysts, we do not study Hezbollah’s military operations, I argued, because Hezbollah is an enemy of the United States. Hezbollah’s military wing is not a transnational threat in the way Sunni extremists have proven to be, and what political and military strength the organization enjoys is largely rooted in the some 1.4 million Lebanese Shia who comprise their constituency—and the geography of southern Lebanon that has enabled Hezbollah to mount, first, a successful guerrilla campaign against Israel and, in 2006, a successful conventional campaign. We study Hezbollah, rather, because long before the 2006 Lebanon War in which they were widely considered to have been the victors, Hezbollah has served as a model for other guerrilla groups—groups which very well may meet the U.S. military in armed conflicts. Hezbollah’s model of “resistance” (Arabic, muqawama) has led to a phenomenon journalist Ehud Ya’ari describes as the “Muqawama Doctrine.”
From a policy perspective, the questions we Americans must ask about Hezbollah are much different than the questions asked by Israelis, for whom Hezbollah has proven to be a direct, capable and resilient military adversary. Amir Kulick’s analysis of Hezbollah’s military posture before and after the 2006 Lebanon War is a good example of an Israeli seeking to understand an organization that is, for Israel, both a declared and actual adversary. The things about Hezbollah that worry us, as Americans, are different and perhaps more abstract. My own concerns, which I will outline below, fall into two categories: tactical and strategic.
Tactically, Hezbollah’s performance throughout the 1990s and in the 2006 war raises three red flags for U.S. military professionals. Unlike most other Arab armies since 1948, Hezbollah demonstrates a high proficiency in the maintenance and employment of its weapons systems, Hezbollah performs well in small-unit light infantry operations, and Hezbollah uses a decentralized command structure that allows its subordinate leaders to exercise a high degree of initiative on the battlefield.
This last characteristic is the most important—and directly related to Hezbollah’s successes in small-unit combat. As Ken Pollack and others have noted, in previous wars against Arab militaries, Israeli tactical leaders grew accustomed to platoon leaders and company commanders in, say, the Egyptian Army, who could be expected to react ponderously to rapidly changing battlefield dynamics due to the degree to which they operated in highly centralized command structures—organizations in which even the smallest tactical decisions required approval from above. This allowed Israeli tactical leaders to get inside their counterparts’ “OODA Loops.” The OODA Loop—Orient, Observe, Decide, Act—is the process, coined by John Boyd, by which military leaders make decisions. The small-unit leader with a quicker decision-making process—or smaller OODA Loop—is at a competitive advantage against his opposite number. Because Hezbollah small-unit leaders, with freedom to make decisions quicker than their peers in the armies of Arab states, can make decisions at a speed roughly equivalent to their opposite numbers in IDF tactical units, they are a much more difficult adversary on the battlefield than Egyptian tank commanders or infantry platoon leaders in wars past.
Similarly, if other guerrilla groups successfully emulate Hezbollah’s model, they too will be much more difficult adversaries on the battlefield for the U.S. military than the Iraqi Army in 1991 or 2003.
Strategically, Hezbollah presents different challenges. I take exception to Kulick’s argument that Hezbollah engaged in a war of attrition against Israel prior to the 2006 war. Looking at the internal dynamics at work within Hezbollah, one is struck by what an achievement it has been to keep a large, ideologically diverse organization like Hezbollah together under one tent. I argue that in the years following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah adopted a deterrent doctrine, seeking to discourage an Israeli adventure into southern Lebanon through Hezbollah military strength.
But how, then, can we explain the hundreds of rocket attacks against northern Israel after 2000? Or the numerous kidnapping attempts, the last of which ignited the destructive 33-day conflict in 2006? Here we must pay attention to the costs of Hezbollah remaining a cohesive organization—and note the way in which Hezbollah’s internal dynamics lead to strategic incoherence.
There are several reasons making the fantasy that Hezbollah will ever give up its arms unlikely. The first—and the most understandable—is that the Shia who make up Hezbollah’s constituency think giving up their arms means giving up the hard-won seat at Beirut’s political table earned over the past three decades. The Shia of Lebanon are the country’s historical underclass, and the Shia fear a return to the days when their concerns were largely forgotten by the central government. Without the arms of Hezbollah, they argue, no one in Beirut will care about the concerns of the Shia living in the south, the Bekaa Valley, and the suburbs of Beirut.
The second reason why Hezbollah cannot give up its arms, though, is because so many of the young men who join the organization join to fight. These young men are lured by the promise of fighting Israel, and Hezbollah must worry that if they were to abandon their military campaign against Israel, these young men would simply split from the organization in the same way that so many of the Amal militia’s gunmen left for Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Thus, in order to keep these young men of arms under the same big tent as the rest of the organization, it is necessary to continue some form of armed conflict against Israel. In this way, Hezbollah’s cross-border raids and rocket attacks against Israel after the 2000 withdrawal—while necessary from an internal perspective—ultimately worked against Hezbollah’s overall strategy of deterrence.
Normally keen observers of Israeli politics, Hezbollah misread the dynamics in Jerusalem following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in 2006 and attempted their own kidnappings just over the border near Ayta ash-Shab on July 12th. The kidnappings—unlike an attempt a few months earlier in the disputed city of Ghajjar—were successful, but the Israeli response was brutal and unexpected. (The ways in which Israel’s decision-makers similarly misread the dynamics at work within Lebanon in 2006 will have to be the subject of a different post.) The very thing Hezbollah was trying to deter—a massive Israeli assault on Hezbollah and their Shia constituents—was provoked by an act of foolishness along the border.
A cult of resistance has developed within Hezbollah, one that makes it very difficult for the organization to ever be at peace. A similar cult of arms exists in the U.S. Marine Corps or the U.S. Army’s light infantry units, of course, but should the U.S. ever be at peace, there is little worry the soldiers and Marines will revolt and form their own splinter organization. That is the worry within Hezbollah, and the way in which violence against Israel has become a necessary part of the organization’s psyche is worrying not only for Israel but also for the Lebanese—both those aligned with Hezbollah and those opposed.
From the perspective of an American, the worry is that this cult of resistance will spread to other guerrilla groups in the region, making peace impossible. There are those within Hezbollah and organizations like Hamas who no doubt argue for a more peaceful track toward coexistence. But coexistence is impossible as long as the cult of resistance precludes it.