Tuesday, August 29, 2006

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How bad was Hezbollah hurt?

Last month I posted the following caveat to my blogging about the Lebanon conflict:

[I]it is possible that Hezbollah has suffered far greater losses than we know. There is an asymmetry in the reporting of the conflict -- reporters clearly have much greater access to the Israeli military than Hezbollah. While it's in both sides' interest to keep published reports of their losses to a minimum, it's institutionally tougher for Israel to do this.

As a result, the Israeli losses are known -- the Hezbollah losses are not completely known.

So the war is over now -- how bad was Hezbollah hurt?

I still don't know the answer. According to Greg Djerejian, Hezbollah has acted so swiftly to reconstruct and rebuild the affected portions of Lebanon that, "Hizbollah's vast independent network undermines the state and encourages criticism of the cash-strapped central government."

On the other hand, according to Michael Totten, Hezbollah is acting in a quite chastened manner in South Lebanon:

[T]he most recent development in Hezbollah’s post-war saga is frankly humiliating.
Hizbullah has dismantled 14 outposts on the Israel-Lebanon border near the Shaba Farms, Lebanese security sources said Monday.

Reportedly, the group evacuated the posts using trucks to carry artillery, other weapons and military equipment, while bulldozers blocked access to tunnels and bunkers.

Witnesses said that the vehicles laden with weapons and other military equipment were headed northward.

A French news agency reported that the Lebanese army had deployed troops along the border with Syria and that its soldiers had blocked routes used by weapons smugglers.

I challenge my readers to parse out these contradictory developments.

UPDATE: Below is an extract from an e-mail relayed to me by someone within the "defense establishment" -- make of it what you will:

1. All serious military analysts in the US, Iran and Israel understand that Hezbollah suffered an enormous defeat on the battlefield.

2. However, Hezbollah’s military branch developed a technique to nullify the tactic that the IDF normally uses in cross-border raids. Specifically, the IDF often conducts raids by quickly sending in a platoon backed up by a few tanks/mobile armor units. By arming their fighters with anti-tank weapons, Hezbollah nullified the tank advantage. By using tunnels, they were able to surprise the IDF infantry and evade reprisal.

3. In response, IDF changed tactics. Specifically, they activated massive reserves and then flooded the areas with troops. This nullifies the Hezbollah technique because the IDF could cut retreat routes, block routes to other tunnels, and can quickly kill the people who pop out of tunnels. In short, after you take a cheap shot at the IDF and you try to run, you will encounter more IDF.

4. In the last days, when the IDF called its reserves, Hezbollah lost much ground and was powerless to stop most IDF actions.

5. Also, the strategy of distributing rockets throughout the population is very effective for publicity. Though the rockets themselves cause relatively little damage and have little effective military use, they are easy to use, hard to stop and are sensational (in the sense that they bring attention).

posted by Dan on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM


Hiz./Iran is a political/pr victor both in Lebenon and the broader world, but militarily humbled. The leader of Hiz. said in an interview that he would not have ordered the kidnapping had he known a 34 day war would have resulted...MAY SOME PROGRESS CAN RESULT FROM ALL OF THIS!

posted by: centrist on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

Easy. The military wing suffered a tactical defeat, but the political organization is still intact and has deep pockets. Stopping arms smuggling now is akin to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Hezbollah is in a much better position w/r/t the Lebanese government politically now, and is not interested in a resumption of hostilities with Israel in the short run (min. 6-12 mos.).

posted by: Tom on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

I know you have been waiting for my thoughts (haha).

Actually, I think Hizbullah has been both hurt and strengthened by this whole mess. I think the most telling sign of Hizbullah's political strength is this article:

Contrary to those like Michael Young (of the daily star) who believe that Hizbullah wants to simply remain a resistance movement and wants to build a strictly Islamic state, Nasrallah said many times (in that interview where he denied he would have captured the soldiers if he would have known about the coming war) he respects the plurality of Lebanese society.

To me, it looks like Hizbullah is counting its losses, but also building on its strengths. So, while they are acting in a very reserved manner towards the Israelis and the Lebanese government, they are positioning themselves to capitalize on their newly universial popularity by gaining a stronger position in the Lebanese government. They are in a position where they don't have to fear the Lebanese Army, because if the political forces at work keep playing out, they will soon be in control of it! I think they are playing the typical islamist game of playing your hand soft so as not to endanger your group overall, and being patient to wait for the best times to flex your influence.

But on the other side, I think they are legitimately sad about the destruction of Lebanon caused by Israel. And that hurts them very much. I don't think their military capacity is very much damaged, but they are mourning the destruction. Plus, in that interview, Nasrallah said that they are not hiding the numbers of dead they suffered, and he said that they still have significant numbers of weapons.

I believe the humility of Hizbullah. They are not the typical bombastic Arab group. Nasrallah was saying before the war that they would win if they survive. He was not saying that as a form of propaganda, but as a genuine reflection of the power of Israel and the weakness of their group. I think they did better then even they expected, but they are still hurt by their loses..

posted by: Joe m. on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

Totten's acct. is more reliable consider that the Hizbos were unable to rally a "victory" parade. Djerejian's acct is from the Financial Times which like most western news sources are pro-Hizbos. Btw, Hizbos US dollars for reconstruction look like counterfeits. Take whatever the Hizbos claim with a ton of salt. There's not much left after the salt melted, but it takes time for the salt to melt.

posted by: ic on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

Time will tell whether Hiz was strengthened or not. What's pretty clear is that there is some sort of dialogue going on now between Hiz and the rest of Lebanese society, because the other factions in Leb are not too thrilled with the results of Hez's unilateralist actions.

Also noteworthy is that this is the first time since the 60s the central Lebanese government has had troops in the South of Leb. Would Hiz have permitted this had they not been involved in this war? It's a question. The current Lebanese PM seems to be far more adroit then one would expect...

Also, with respect to rebuilding, let's see how things look in a year. Hez is, like the Palestinian parties, a political machine with a terrorist wing. The machine acts like Mayor Daily, only more so, delivering the goodies to constituents, provided they are loyal. Handing out cash is something they are good at. But will they be any good at rebuilding buildings?

My guess is Hiz has an opportunity here, as does Lebanon, to strengthen its position. the clash between these two entites will be interesting.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

"Totten's acct. is more reliable consider that the Hizbos were unable to rally a "victory" parade. Djerejian's acct is from the Financial Times which like most western news sources are pro-Hizbos."

And of course, Totten's account, from Israel and from the Jerusalem Post, cannot be accused of having any bias.

posted by: erg on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

The test will be whether Hezbollah north of the Litani river replaces its short-range rockets with a larger arsenal of longer-range missiles.

posted by: David Billington on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

One advantage Totten has over Djerejian is that he lived in Beirut for awhile not long ago and travelled in (and reported from) Hezbollah-controlled territory. He's well aware of both Hezbollah's thuggish tendencies and its ability to "deliver the goods" when it wishes.

Hezbollah is in a pretty substantial damage-control mode (no pun intended), as it didn't expect its efforts to result in so much damage to its constituency. Most of those interviewed by the Western press in South Lebanon will, of course, blame Israel--they know Hezboallah controls the area and that its thugs will happily demonstrate their power to the speaker or their family members if the published/broadcast remarks aren't sufficiently supportive.

At the same time, Hezbollah is more subtle than most Islamist groups, and will allow a little dissent in order to credibly assert their support is genuine and not coerced. They also have significant genuine support, since the Lebanese government has generally been useless with regard to providing public goods.

We're seeing a (probably temporary) retrenchment of Hezbollah's position. They're trying to shore up political support and consolidate their weapons in less-vulnerable positions while they wait for the international community to play its little game of peacekeeping and leave. Since the international presence (no matter how pathetic it turns out to be) will keep Israel out, they'll have time to consolidate and play up the political angle, maybe taking a shot at winning the next round of elections so they can run all of Lebanon (with, of course, substantial support from Syria and Iran).

posted by: Jem on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

I don't see anything "frankly humiliating" about Hezbollah moving forces away from the Lebanese border. If there is any "humiliation" involved, the "humiliation" would have occurred when Hezbollah announced its support for the ceasefire proposal, not when it carried it out. Note that Hezbollah is moving its forces, not disarming them.

At this point, Hezbollah has nothing to gain from further military action. It's gotten credit for achieving a military victory against Israel. The status of Shebaa Farms is now up for negotiation; there is a good chance that it will end up being turned over to Lebanon. Israel was unable to recover its soldiers through military force; I expect that Hezbollah will get the prisoner exchange that it was seeking when it started the whole mess. If Hezbollah has any sense--and it seems to--it will do nothing to jepardize the ceasefire.

So I don't see anything contradictory in the two developments Dan lists. Hezbollah put up a decent military fight (though the Israeli military was better), and is now trying to convert that military victory (or more precisely, non-defeat) into concrete gains.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

And of course, Totten's account, from Israel and from the Jerusalem Post, cannot be accused of having any bias.

Totten's lived in Lebanon and has friends there- I would be very careful about accusing him of bias merely on account of geographic location.

posted by: rosignol on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

Since the 'war' was a factor not of potentialities concerning materiel but one of potentialities concerning perceptions you must judge the results accordingly - and accordingly Hiz could now be left with a bunch of 'deadenders' sitting on a hilltop with an RPG and it still amounts to a win for them.

posted by: the real Tom Jones on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

Totten's lived in Lebanon and has friends there- I would be very careful about accusing him of bias merely on account of geographic location.

Totten lived in the non Shiite areas of Beirut and has friends there. Your argument would be a little like saying that "X" lives in Israel, hence cannot be accused of any bias against Israel, whereas X actually lives in the Arabic areas of Israel.

In any case, my point wasn't to claim that Totten was biased, it was responding to someone who claimed that the Western press was biased and pro-Hezbollah. It is indeed passing strange to call the Western Press biased in favor of Hezbollah and not think that Totten's message, which was related from the Jerusalem post, could be biased as well, since the Post was after from a country which was an active participant in the battle.

posted by: erg on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

One point worth considering here is Muqtada Al Sadr's battles with the US army 2 years back. In that case, there was no dispute, he suffered massive defeats with kill ratios of 100 to 1. Yet, 2 years later, he is even stronger than before.

posted by: erg on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

Just consider a few facts:

1. Nasrallah is in hiding.
2. Hizballah is in a state of shock and panic
3. Their fighting ability was shown to be very poor
4. Half of its forces are dead or wounded
5. It is voluntarily dismounting its bases in the south and delivering them to the Lebanese army and the Italians
6 Its Beirut HQ are in ruins
7. Lebanese are talking about peace with Israel, unafraid of Hizballah
8. Hizballas big brothers did not help it, Siria and Iran did nothing during the conflict. The Arabs let Hizballah bleed and die. Anger of the Arab street is impotent and Arab leaders terrifying rethoric is empty. Muslim solidarity is non existent. When needed, Hizballah had no friends nor allies. Point 8 for those building systems based on newspaper articles or TV declarations. Reality is that Arabs as a political or military force, are almost non existent. So much for Ahmedfinjan's ugly speeches too.

posted by: jaimito on 08.29.06 at 11:31 AM [permalink]

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