Tactics of insurgency
Thursday August 3, 2006
The difficulty inherent with asymmetric warfare - the military term for fighting irregular forces with conventional forces - is that your enemy is able to "move among the people like a fish in water". This description of the nature of revolutionary war by Mao Zedong in the 1920s does well to define the aim of counter-insurgency as the need to "separate the fish from the water" or the insurgent from the people. Israel is now facing this problem in southern Lebanon.
What insurgents lack in military capability they make up for in different ways. Good insurgent leaders balance their advantages against their disadvantages in what is often an unequal fight. They have three distinct advantages over the conventional military.
Firstly, they have a chameleon-like ability to shift back and forth across the divide from insurgent to civilian; recognising when it is best to fight and when to walk away, downing tools when continued resistance would result in their own futile destruction.
The insurgent's second advantage is propaganda. The media, when used skillfully by the insurgent, can have far greater effect than any amount of bullets or bombs. The current conflict in Lebanon is not militarily equal, but Hizbullah abides by no laws or treaties, nor is it burdened by accountability. Well managed, an insurgent group can portray itself as "freedom fighters". Additionally, Hizbullah can turn every dead fighter into a hero, and every civilian death into a recruiting tool. It is unlikely to run out of recruits for the foreseeable future.
The final area where any insurgent campaign is likely to have an advantage is in its knowledge and use of the ground. It is reported that Hizbullah has been preparing for this conflict for six years. It has constructed a network of tunnels, selected its ambushes, and prepared the local population.
Israel, for its part, is pursuing a conventional, straightforward approach. It can do little else. The Israeli army is a mixture of professionals, national service conscripts and reservists. The last two categories by their very nature have limited military training and are less capable of complex operations.
Once the decision had been made to destroy Hizbullah, a four-phased operation was put into action. Phase one called for widespread air strikes against Lebanese infrastructure, crippling the country and dishing out collective punishment on the people for supporting Hizbullah. It was presumably hoped that an early settlement could be achieved through pressure on Hizbullah. This did not work.
Phase two has seen more direct targeting of Hizbullah fighters and its capabilities, by disrupting communications and supplies and safe houses.
The Israeli forces are now moving into phase three: the land offensive. The aim is to "mop up" pockets of resistance and seize ground from rocket teams. It is potentially the bloodiest phase for Israel - and the one Hizbullah has been waiting for.
Phase four would be the occupation of Hizbullah's ground, southern Lebanon. However it is too early to say whether this will be done by the Israeli army or a UN force. Whichever way it ends up, this most recent conflict in the Middle East is following a now recognisable pattern: insurgent conflicts are never short, nor benign in destructive power.
· Amyas Godfrey is Associate Fellow of Royal United Services Institute