Blurring victory in guerrilla warfare


  • Militants, guerillas and terrorists often operate out of civilian areas.
  • This makes it impossible for military and state forces to attack them without causing civilian casualties and damage to civilian property.
  • This allows militant groups to use attacks in which there are civilian casualties to claim victory and to turn opinion against the government and military forces.

Since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, Hizbullah has trained, acquired arms and entrenched itself in many regions of the country, with help from patrons in Iran and Syria. It has established command positions in towns and villages in south Lebanon, inside Beirut and in the Lebanese Beka Valley. In the interim years, the organisation's members have carried out sporadic and limited attacks along Israel's northern border.

The hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah reflect many other conflicts currently being waged between democratic states and militants, guerrillas, terrorist organisations and other sub-state groups. The way in which such conflicts are waged often leads to civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property, and this can turn public opinion against the state. This not only creates inherent difficulties in bringing such conflicts to an end, but also in determining who is the victor, as the cost of military or state victory may be a loss of public or international support which paradoxically boosts the militants' position.

Democratic restraints

Some democratic countries face particular problems where they do not breach the moral constraints dictated to them by their own societies in order to combat militant organisations. For example, the armed forces of a democratic government may refuse to launch a missile attack on a village that they know to be harbouring and supporting guerrillas, although they would be able to score a decisive victory if they chose to. This restraint can allow sub-state groups to claim a tangible victory and the associated glory, even though they have not defeated the regimes they are opposing.

Conflicts of this type pose a difficult and especially complex challenge for democracies. The moral and legal constraints they place on themselves often prevent them from activating their full power. Sub-state organisations are able to survive and continue to mount attacks; these attacks may only be sporadic and carried out with limited means, but even small ones may cause enough harm to enable the sub-state groups to create an image of themselves as victors, or at least as an unbeatable foe. This can happened even where it is clear that the sub-state groups have suffered far heavier losses than the state they have been fighting.

Human shields

Sub-state organisations, particularly those operating from within weak or failed states, have a distinct advantage over their state rivals. They often operate out of autonomous territorial areas that are relatively well protected. In many cases, the militant groups enjoy exclusive control, set their own agenda and operate without any central government having the military force or political determination to confront them. They often take cover in heavily populated civilian areas and use residential buildings to store their armaments. They exploit this sensitivity to human life, knowing that their enemies will not risk high numbers of innocent casualties. When the democratic forces are provoked into retaliating, they exempt themselves from responsibility for any harm caused to civilians they have endangered. Instead, they will often exploit civilian casualties for propaganda purposes, using it to illustrate what they say is the immoral and anti-democratic nature of their enemy.

One example of this is the events of 12 July 2006, when Hizbullah attacked civilian targets in several villages on Israel's northern border with rocket and mortar fire, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing eight more. Israel considered this attack to be a cause for war and embarked on a military operation against Hizbullah designed to push its forces away from the border and inflict heavy damage on the organisation's infrastructure and human resources. Israel's counter-attack enabled the Lebanese government to deploy its army along the border with Israel, as had been required by UN Security Council resolution 1559. Yet many observers saw Israel as the main aggressor and Lebanon as the wounded party Hizbullah's provocation was almost forgotten.

Taking shelter

In the conflict against Hizbullah, Israel is faced with the complex challenge of fighting a semi-military organisation that employs guerrilla tactics, finds shelter within civilian populations and operates out of a Lebanese state devoid of military force and the political will to impose its authority against it. While Israeli villages are subjected to intense, indiscriminate attacks by rockets and missiles aimed with the clear objective of killing civilians and causing as much destruction as possible, Israel is only able to retaliate under self-imposed constraints in order to avoid harming as few Lebanese civilians as possible. These constraints, wittingly or unwittingly, provide cover for Hizbullah attacks carried out from the villages and towns that support them.

Any harm caused to Lebanese civilians in events such as this, even to those who have collaborated with Hizbullah and have stored missiles in their homes, is the organisation's most effective weapon in its efforts to turn international opinion against Israel. In July 2006, the deaths of several civilians in Kfar Kana in the basement of a building in an area from which more than 150 rockets had been launched on Israeli towns enabled Hizbullah to project an image to the international community of Israel as the immoral aggressor in an immoral conflict, regardless of the fact that Hizbullah intentionally operated from crowded pockets of civilian populations or that the Israeli response displayed arguable restraint. By the end of the conflict, Hizbullah had succeeded in inflicting heavy damage on the Israeli home front and survived and therefore claimed victory.

The apparent advantages that can be gained from situations such as these pose the danger that other radical sub-state elements may increase their use of militant tactics and guerrilla warfare as these can be seen as the most efficient means of combating the West's military and technological capabilities.

The situation in Iraq

Parallels can be seen in the difficulty there has been in determining who is winning the war in Iraq. After three and a half years of conflict between the US, its allies and local insurgents, terrorist organisations and their foreign supporters, this is still under debate. Iraqi sub-state organisations using terrorism and guerrilla tactics have also positioned themselves in the middle of civilian populations. The massive damage inflicted on Iraqi civilian areas is blamed on the US and its allies rather than on the guerrillas and terrorists who provoke attacks. Defeating those groups will be impossible without further loss of civilian life, but that loss of life is likely to be blamed on the coalition forces particularly by parties that are not directly involved in the conflict and by human rights groups.

The case of the Taliban

Al-Qaeda, under the protection of the Taliban regime, is another example of an organisation that has taken advantage of these tactics to claim a victory that could just as easily be considered a crushing defeat. In orchestrating the 11 September 2001 attacks on the attacks on the US, Osama bin Laden ignored the reservations of the Taliban leader. The US retaliation caused considerable destruction and the death of numerous civilians in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime has been ousted from power and the organisation's infrastructure has suffered a severe blow. However, Bin Laden did not shoulder the blame for the ensuing destruction, but used events as propaganda to provide evidence of what he said was the murderous and immoral nature of the West, led by the US and its allies. The organisation and its affiliates around the world have claimed victory in the campaign waged against them. They continue to carry out acts of terrorism, including in arenas where the organisation's members fight against superior military forces, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. To their supporters, they appear undefeated.

Unfortunately by their very nature, democratic states that voluntarily limit the extent of their retaliation also limit their ability to find a total solution for the challenge posed by organisations such as Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda. This makes it all the more important for democratic states to raise awareness of all citizens (in their own countries and those of their aggressors) of the issues involved and to stress the importance of maintaining the standards of their democracy. This will at least reduce the sense of frustration and, sometimes, even helplessness caused by elusiveness of a decisive victory in such conflicts. It may also help to devise more creative ways of addressing the struggle in the future.

Yoram Schweitzer is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies associated with Tel Aviv University.




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