Why Lawrence of Arabia is still relevant, from Gaza to Kabul
Armies worldwide realizing they'll be more effective if they're familiar with enemy territory, local culture.
Until television came to our land, Israel won all its wars; since then, it has won none. In the ensuing years changes have occurred in our society - in the national consensus, in the definition of victory, in relations of power with the enemies and in the expectations of the operational military bodies. And still, the world sees the Israeli-Arab arena as a laboratory where experiments are worth learning from, and the findings are worth copying.
The freshest example is the Gaza Strip. U.S. military officials who spoke with their Israeli colleagues after Operation Cast Lead were impressed with the integration between the "intelligence screen" located inside enemy territory, and the "fire screen" that was used before the forces entered and its result: a small number of Israel Defense Forces casualties. The Pentagon understands that this achievement is important in and of itself, and also because it encourages support among the public.
After failing with other methods, generals and governments are going back to two basic and related elements: integration and location - expansion of action into nonmilitary areas and reliance on various local institutions, forces and officers there. The model to whom they are returning is last century's Lawrence of Arabia.
Indeed, Admiral Eric Thor Olson, commander of U.S. naval special forces operations, needs officers like T.E. Lawrence, who will immerse themselves in the local culture and enlist tribal heads to revolt against their rulers. In Afghanistan, for example, Olson's forces are expected to do everything from providing veterinary medical services to launching manhunts of wanted individuals. Unintentional injury of locals is regrettable, but accepted with more understanding than physical and psychological harm to American soldiers.
Two weeks ago, before the House Armed Services Committee, Olson spoke in terms that sounded familiar to Israelis, although there was no mention of his experience as a United Nations observer in Egypt and Israel.
"The Taliban, although not militarily strong, is pervasive and brutal," said Olson. "Operating in the guise of both nationalists and keepers of the faith, but behaving in the manner of street gangs and mafias, they have forced an intimidated and mostly benign populace to bend to their will. Their methods run the relatively narrow range from malicious to evil ... Civilian casualties are mostly a result of their tactics, not ours. The operational commanders I hear from are doing all they can to minimize the number of noncombatant deaths because they both abhor the reality of civilian casualties and understand the negative strategic impact of such deaths. They know that, as long as our enemy forces noncombatant women, children and others to support their operations ... some will die."
Americans rejoiced when, on Easter Sunday, cargo ship Captain Richard Phillips was freed after letting himself be taken captive to save his crew. Olson's commandos rescued him, killing from a range of 30 meters the pirates who held him in a sophisticated lifeboat. This was a rescue achieved through trickery, during bargaining with the captors, a bit like Israel's Sayeret Matkal commando takeover of the hijacked Sabena airplane.
This was not the first operation of this kind: Last summer, three Americans were freed after being captives of the FARC organization in Colombia for five years. The resources invested there are astounding: a quarter of a billion dollars, 3,600 aerial forays and 17,000 flight hours. However, with the praise, skeptical Americans wondered what could be learned about the mightiest naval fleet in the world from confrontations with jungle fighters and barefoot Somali sea pirates. The conclusion, according to experts such as retired U.S. Army officer and adviser Russell Glenn, is that there is a need for "hybrid war." Today's complex reality demands knowledge of both conventional warfare and guerrilla warfare.
Two weeks ago, Admiral James Stavridis of the Southern Command of the U.S. Navy listed the basic "commandments" of fighting terror, as gleaned from his experience in Colombia: enlistment of support from all government departments, good intelligence, reliable media, a sound information and propaganda strategy, an emphasis on defending the population - and the understanding that it takes at least a decade for certain operational plans to ripen.
Commander David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, also presented some fighting principles of his own: Do not try to do everything by yourself; cultural awareness augments strength; success depends on local leaders; remember to use the lower-ranking forces and deputy officers; and, there is no substitute for flexible commanders. Petraeus is now expected to implement these doctrines, which served him well in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the face of some 50,000 enemies, mostly Taliban, but also a minority from Al Qaeda, and some 500 Iranians from the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force.
Israel's experience with local populations is mixed. The IDF succeeded with the Kurds and failed with the Phalanges. Vis-a-vis the Southern Lebanese Army, there were successes, but among its veterans - who remained in Lebanon after having learned the Israeli system - there are now Hezbollah collaborators.
There is now another experiment under way, in the West Bank, with the Palestinian battalions being organized by U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. The Preventative Intelligence and other units have been operating in recent weeks with increasing effectiveness to prevent terror attacks, thanks to intelligence they have gathered themselves or from Israel. The weakness of Prime Minister Salam Fayad and the mechanisms subservient to him lies in the cycle of recidivism: Planners of terror attacks are arrested, but are quickly released and may well perpetrate new ones. Thanks to the cumulative achievement of Israeli and Palestinian prevention efforts, the Shin Bet security service has recently publicized only very few warnings of terror attacks from the West Bank.
The big advantage that Israelis have over Americans in a hybrid war lies in the Shin Bet's familiarity with what goes on in the field, and the transparency between it and the IDF. For the Americans this is harder: Familiarity with the field means spending time there and having a suitable background for such work. The Central Intelligence Agency is boasting of the cancellation of the ban on recruiting immigrants. A member of Congress from an Arab background, who spoke recently with an Israeli acquaintance, found this ridiculous. True, he said, if you are an American citizen born in Lebanon, you are no longer barred from intelligence work, but if you have relatives there - the prohibition needs to be in force.