OpinionIsrael at War

What America can learn from Israel on the battlefield

The problem with COIN when applied to Muslim countries is that whoever wins, we lose.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip on May 21, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip on May 21, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Daniel Greenfield
Daniel Greenfield is an Israeli-born journalist who writes for conservative publications.

America has never successfully liberated and held territory from Islamic terrorists. After thousands dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, both countries are now controlled by Islamic terrorists.

Many top current and former defense officials who oversaw both disasters, despite a track record of zero wins, have been criticizing Israel for not following in their footsteps.

Everyone from retired general David Petraeus to current Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. C.Q. Brown offers the familiar criticisms that Israel is not following the COIN (counterinsurgency) model.

“Not only do you have to actually go in and clear out whatever adversary you are up against, you have to go in, hold the territory and then you’ve got to stabilize it,” Chief Brown argued.

The problem with this model is that it failed and left a lot of widows and orphans along the way.

The United States spent over 50 years losing wars, prestige and young men by trying to follow the familiar strategy for defeating guerrilla armies through conventional warfare followed by efforts to hold and stabilize the territories. And what exactly do we have to show for it?

The Israel Defense Forces discarded this conventional wisdom for another approach.

Rather than trying to hold territory filled with an enemy population among whom the terrorists move, it has used its manpower to attack concentrations of enemy forces, moving quickly and at times unpredictably, while refusing to get bogged down by trying to “hold” any particular area.

This strategy has frustrated the entire Hamas war plan which, like that of jihadis in Iraq and Afghanistan, depended on using terror attacks to pin military units in place, forcing them to defend and patrol a territory, and then exploiting their weaknesses to launch ambushes.

Israel learned a hard lesson from Oct. 7. It’s not interested in playing defense anymore. Instead, the goal of the initial stages of the war has been to keep the terrorists forces on the defensive. Complaints that Israel has to “re clear” areas that it’s already taken miss the point. The enemy population supports the terrorists and so the area can’t be “cleared” or “stabilized.” But once Israel has taken control of terrorist infrastructure, it’s better able to understand their operations.

When Israel “re-cleared” Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, it took by surprise and captured much of the leadership of Islamic Jihad and some Hamas leaders as well. Rather than a weakness, re-clearing is a strength because when terrorists return to territory that Israel is now familiar with, it can turn the tables and launch surprise attacks on those old positions.

Israel is not fighting to take land, but to grind down enemy forces wherever they operate.

“The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal told the Senate about his Afghanistan strategy in 2009. McChrystal’s strategy killed a lot of Americans instead.

Israel is betting that McChrystal is wrong. It’s measuring effectiveness in just that way.

Holding and stabilizing territory, the basis for the COIN model, bogs down armies in defensive modes, while Israel’s approach is purely offensive and plays to its strengths. The IDF is bad at defensive operations, but quite good at rapid assaults. COIN would play to Israel’s weaknesses and the strengths of the terrorists, much as it did with us in Iraq and Afghanistan, but discarding COIN has made the IDF’s campaigns far more effective, even if they’re nowhere near the end.

COIN advocates cite their “successes” against Islamic State in Iraq. But those successes pitted one group of Islamic terrorists against another. They would like Israel to pit the PLO against Hamas, but not only is the PLO unwilling to fight Hamas (it lost badly the last time it tried to do so), but the end result would be the same disaster that befell Iraq, which fell into the hands of Shi’ite terrorists.

The problem with COIN when applied to Muslim countries is that whoever wins, we lose.

COIN in Afghanistan propped up an ineffective warlord and kleptocrat alliance that couldn’t survive without our military support, while COIN in Iraq turned over the country to Iran. Not only did both pathways lead to dead ends, but neither one is even available for Israel to utilize.

The Biden administration and some former defensive officials have proposed finding Muslim nations willing to help “stabilize” Gaza afterward. Not only aren’t such nations available, but Egypt, which controls the Rafah crossing into Gaza, did everything possible to stop an Israeli advance in order to cover up the massive tunnels leading from Gaza into Egypt.

Once Israel went into Rafah, Egypt cut off aid through its crossing into Gaza in order to manufacture another “humanitarian crisis” and allow Hamas to take control in Rafah again.

That is what Israel’s prospective Muslim “partners” are really up to behind the scenes.

But that was also exactly how America’s Muslim partners acted. While America searched for Osama bin Laden, Pakistan was harboring him in one of its military towns. Qatar harbored Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, and Saudi Arabia, which provided most of the hijackers (along with our other regional allies) rushed to defend the terrorists at Gitmo.

Israel has a more realistic assessment of those Arab Muslim “partners” than D.C. does.

Oct. 7 was enabled by generations of peace accords overseen by D.C., beginning with the Camp David Accords, which enabled Egypt to recover territory that it had lost in a war without actually offering anything more than the coldest possible peace, and then followed by the Oslo Accords and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which turned over the territory to Hamas.

The Camp David Accords, the Oslo Accords and the Gaza withdrawal allowed Hamas to not only dominate Gaza, but connected it directly to Egyptian territory and forced Israel to refight the conflicts that it should have left behind in the 1950s because there was no longer a security zone.

If Israel still controlled the Sinai and Gaza, Oct. 7 would have been impossible.

Oct. 7 happened because Israel put diplomacy and its hope for peace ahead of its strategic imperatives. After Oct. 7, it’s finally putting strategic imperatives ahead of diplomatic ones.

Nation-building, currently referred to by politicians as a “day after plan,” is not on the agenda. Israel is not trying to “hold” or “stabilize” territory. Even if such considerations emerge later, it will only be when the situation on the ground has shifted significantly. The current focus is on destroying concentrations of Islamic terrorist forces and their infrastructure.

Biden administration critics claim that the collateral damage from the war will allow Hamas to recruit more men, but the Israelis know that what really allows terrorists to recruit is leaving them in power. Allowing Hamas to control Gaza for 17 years is what built it an army.

Israel is out to destroy Hamas as an organized force. The goal of the war is to take out its leaders and reduce the enemy to its smallest possible components.

“If they leave and get out of Gaza, as we believe they need to do, then you’re going to have a vacuum, and a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, by anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken complained on CBS News.

Chaos and anarchy, while not ideal, are still a better deal than Hamas. Given a choice, Israel would prefer to live next door to Haiti than Iran. Islamic terrorists fighting warring gangs over territory are far preferable to terrorists building rockets and missiles.

After Oct. 7, Israel is applying a crude realpolitik to the problem. It’s insufficient as a solution, but it’s a whole lot more pragmatic than the nation building and counterinsurgency rabbit hole that swallowed up a generation of our finest fighting men with nothing to show for it except despair.

Israel is trying to limit its casualties while maximizing its results. Our politicians and generals could learn a thing or two from that. The IDF is not being tasked with digging wells, winning hearts and minds or having three cups of tea with the terrorists. Its soldiers are tasked with pushing out and engaging enemy forces to expose their leaders and command structure.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, we used military force to achieve political and diplomatic aims, while Israel is using military force to achieve military aims. What a shockingly sensible notion.

Perhaps our politicians and generals ought to consider it next time we get involved in a war.

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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