What the U.S. Military Can and Cannot Learn From the IDF's Gaza Operation

Though both armies are fighting Muslim insurgencies, international backlash for Israeli operations and different long-term objectives complicate the comparison. But Israel is still considered the world's 'war laboratory.'

Noah Smith
Noah Smith
IDF tank fires at Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.
IDF tank fires at Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.Credit: Moti Milrod
Noah Smith
Noah Smith

An old joke that made the rounds amongst United States military officers involved with doctrine research went, “At first, the Israeli army admired the American army, then the American army admired the Israeli army, then they admired each other, then they both realized neither one knew what they were doing.”

The current Israeli operation in Gaza, like all other Israeli operations, is being studied by the U.S military, as it seeks to distill any lessons that might help face future threats.

Yet, while the two countries maintain close ties and share Islamist enemies who utilize similar tactics, the U.S and Israeli militaries have fought under vastly different circumstances- and in pursuit of different political outcomes.

These differences have complicated any comparisons between notable U.S battles post-9/11 and the current Israeli operation in Gaza, cautioned U.S. Army Col. (Ret.) David E. Johnson, Ph.D, senior researcher at the RAND Corporation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, who has done extensive research on the recent Israeli campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza.

“Fallujah, for instance, was more like Grozny. We (U.S. military) said (to Fallujah residents), 'Get out and if you’re still here, you’re aterrorist.' When the Marines and Army went in, the city’s population went from about 300,000 to about 30,000. We went from one end of the city to the other,” said Johnson who noted that the exodus helped reduce civilian casualties and issues of proportionality.

In addition to the divergent situations on the ground, the U.S. goals in Iraq and Afghanistan were, and are, also quite different than thoseof the IDF, according to U.S. Army Capt. (Ret.) Andrew Exum, Ph.D., who served as a special advisor for Middle East policy with the U.S. Department of Defense and was a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“The U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan were adopted so that the U.S. could ultimately disengage by building up local security forces. So, there’s a limit to lessons you can draw if you’re Israel," he said.

An IDF officer in the spokesperson unit agreed- though for different reasons.

“There is no playbook for us (Israel). The lessons learned by Israel are applied by other countries. We are past the kind of nation-building done in Afghanistan and Iraq. We already tried that.”

Tactically, Exum said, the IDF has also been hamstrung by ambiguous political directives and overall objectives.

“The IDF is continually asked to ‘mow the grass’ and kind of beat back the capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said, in contrast to the U.S military which was, and is in Afghanistan, trying to create conditions that would allow local forces to take the lead and allow the U.S. to leave.

Still, the differences between the Israeli and U.S experiences have not stopped the U.S. military from studying past Israeli battles and trying to distill lessons learned. This is because Israel is still seen as a kind of “war laboratory,” according to IDF Sgt. (Ret.) Adam Harmon, an American who served with the Israeli paratroopers and was a United States Department of Defense consultant.

Harmon likens IDF to a startup and says the U.S. military can learn from its institutional agility, whereas the IDF can learn to be more organized and future-focused from the U.S. military.

According to Johnson, due to a similar enemy, a shared reliance on technology, and common issues related fighting a counterinsurgency,there is still “symbiotic learning between each other.”

In addition, lessons can be applied as a result of similar tactics employed by enemy fighters.

“In Afghanistan, the Taliban played by different rules. They slit the throat of a child and then had a villager call for a medical evacuation just to see how long it would take, what route we would use, how many soldiers would be onboard,” said an active duty U.S. Marine officer who asked not to be named and did not want to be perceived as speaking on behalf of the USMC.

“The Taliban would shoot villagers in the leg and place blame on Americans as well as injuring civilians and then put them in previously bombed buildings in an attempt to sway the loyalties of villagers away from the U.S.”

“They put the word out through religious and village leaders that we were responsible. When that message is downrange, you can’t get it back,” he said, stressing the importance of popular perception in any counterinsurgency campaign.

As shared enemy tactics can be instructive when creating a counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, so too are tactics employed to defeat them.

During 2008's Jaish al-Mahdi uprising in Sadr City, Johnson identified the T-walls put up by the U.S, which restricted enemy movement in urban terrain, as having a decisive role in the battle.

“The terrorists came out and attacked the walls, and when they did that, they were vulnerable.

It’s not different than Cast Lead, when Hamas came out and contested the IDF,” he said.

As a result of the increased level of combat experience amongst U.S military officers, the relationship between the U.S. and Israeli militaries, from a doctrine-creation standpoint, has matured.

According to Exum, as a result of their own combat experiences, U.S.military officers are now more likely to question and criticize the IDF's use of certain weapons and strategies, even as they maintain an understanding for the complexity of their situation.

“There's a lot of incomprehension as to the way the Israelis are fighting Palestinians. I have quite a bit of sympathy for the IDF because they are asked to do something that is nearly impossible. Military operations are conducted within a broader political initiative. How can they create a lasting peace without those political goals?”

Johnson also expressed the difficulty of operating under the condition in which the IDF now finds itself in Gaza.

“In Baghdad during the surge. we had been very restrained in COIN, not taking shots because of the impact of collateral damage and that all changed during the JAM uprising. It became clear that defeating the enemy would require an escalation of military means,” he said.

According to Johnson, the greatest challenge currently faced by the IDF is, “the willingness of Hamas is to create conditions for civilian casualties because they think it will give them leverage in international opinion.”

Harmon contextualizes this within the special problem of international pressure faced by the IDF, saying, “No one will question the effort to retake Iraq from ISIS,” but added that the IDF must deal with international pressure while fighting a terrorist organization, due to contested civilian death counts.

In Johnson's estimation the IDF, “has been very constrained and understands the consequences of its actions. It has been judicious about its targets,” adding that both international and domestic opinion necessitate this because Israel has “8 million people and 9 million political parties,” he said.

“I read recently that the IDF killed a Hamas leader along with his family. If you want to get that target, you have to take out what's around him,” said Johnson.

“It’s a tough cost benefit analysis.”

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