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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Israel fights under shadow of Iraq
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

The confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah is clearly unbalanced. Israel is a significant military power with sophisticated land, sea and air forces at its disposal.

Man walks past bombed building in Tyre 10 Aug
Israel's current military campaign is in its fifth week

From the outset, Israel's military operations against Hezbollah have puzzled knowledgeable observers not just abroad but also in Israel itself.

One of the Washington think-tank scene's most incisive strategic experts, Anthony Cordesman, expressed his puzzlement at Israel's overall goals, noting that their end results could be "just as strategically self-destructive as (Ariel) Sharon's invasion of Lebanon in 1982".

Writing in late July - admittedly early on in the conflict - he noted that Israel's performance did not "seem particularly impressive either in terms of strategy or execution".

The doyen of Israeli military commentators, veteran Haaretz journalist Zeev Schiff, concluded at the end of the first two weeks of the fighting that Israel was far from a decisive victory and that its main objectives had not been achieved.

There were, he said, "major lessons to be learned".

This week's despatch of the deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) - Maj Gen Moshe Kaplinski - to assume command of operations on the northern front is the clearest signal yet that things have not gone according to plan.

And Israeli analysts hint that there are wider problems in what you might call the command dynamics.

Military 'Americanisation'

Much has been made of the fact that Israel's current Chief-of-Staff - Lt Gen Dan Halutz - is an air force general.

The IDF's initial response to the seizure of its two soldiers and the killing of their comrades inside Israeli territory by a Hezbollah unit and the ensuing rocket fire was to launch a punishing air campaign.

Training and readiness (of the IDF) have by all accounts suffered

But this approach depends upon far more than the branch of service of the IDF chief. The decision to rely upon air power was the result of a wider set of circumstances one of which could be termed the "Americanisation" of the Israeli military.

I've always been struck when visiting advanced US military exercises at the number of Israeli observers - a manifestation of the very close ties between these two countries armed forces.

Ready for action?

Not having been engaged in high-intensity warfare since the early 1980s, the Israeli military has undergone something of a transformation.

For years it has largely been concerned with low-intensity operations against poorly-armed Palestinian fighters.

Hezbollah rocket crew (archive picture)
Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel have increased under fire

Full-scale warfare against the formal army of a neighbouring state has become less likely - though there is an undoubted risk that the present conflict in Lebanon, if it continues, could draw Syria into the fray.

The duration of reserve duty has been reduced. Training and readiness have by all accounts suffered.

Israel's long-term military planning, like the Pentagon's, has focused more and more on what technology can do - a trend amplified by Israel's own high-tech society.

Indeed Israel is probably closer to the United States in its implementation of the so-called "revolution in military affairs" - the combination of real-time intelligence gathering systems with precision fire-power - than any of Washington's Nato allies.

Intelligence problems

Now, as a result, Israel's military finds itself standing in the shadow of Iraq. Watching the IDF's campaign unfold I was struck more and more by the parallels with the Pentagon's recent experiences.

Resident of northern Israeli village looks out of window shattered by Hezbollah rocket blast  10 Aug
Arab villages in Israel have also been hit by Hezbollah rockets
This was the new Western way of war as seen in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and of course Iraq.

The massive investment in what air power can do; although in every case air power has never delivered fully what its advocates have predicted.

The hunt for high-level Hezbollah leaders parallels the attempted decapitation strikes against the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And now, again and again, well-equipped irregular forces are able to inflict casualties even on Israeli armoured units.

Just as in Iraq this is asymmetric warfare in action - the technologically strong cannot necessarily subdue an insurgency of the militarily weak.

The "revolution in military affairs" has served neither country well. Reducing combat to an essential problem of information management is all very well but the quality of information is rarely up to the task.

The lack of reliable tactical intelligence has plagued US operations in Iraq and has again proved a problem in southern Lebanon.

Unattractive option

So, an air force man in charge, the "Americanisation" of Israel's military thinking and a defence minister and prime minister with little practical experience of high command: all these factors combined to set Israel's strategic path.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is hesitating

But there is nothing like learning on the job.

If plan A - the air campaign - and plan B - limited ground incursions have not worked, the Israeli security cabinet yesterday backed a new plan C - one that proposes a much more extensive ground invasion of southern Lebanon.

But here, too, the spectre of Iraq looms. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is hesitating.

He knows such an operation could lead to massive Israeli casualties and last for weeks.

Having established a new security line along the Litani River, Israeli troops would have to comb through southern Lebanon for Hezbollah fighters battling each step of the way.

It is not an attractive option for anyone. No wonder then that the diplomats at the United Nations appear to have been given one last chance.


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