LONDON — It was not meant to be like this. The plan, and the promise by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was that the operation would be over swiftly, the Hezbollah forces with their missiles would be surrounded, rooted out and crushed, the kidnapped Israeli soldiers would be returned, and southern Lebanon would be cleared of terrorists and cease to be a threat to the frightened inhabitants of northern Israel.
To the dismay of the Israeli public, and the surprise of a large flock of defense experts accustomed to high-speed Israeli victories over weak Arab neighbors, the Hezbollah guerrillas continued raining down rockets on Israeli towns for weeks. Worse still, armed with their ultra modern, armor-piercing and laser-directed missiles, they were able to knock out Israel’s invincible tanks and then to melt into the hills and villages of southern Lebanon. They proved to be an elusive enemy that all the bombs and reconnaissance from the air could never somehow pin down. None of Olmert’s promises have been delivered.
As one weary Israeli soldier observed, this was an enemy that seemed to combine all the advantages and flexibility of an irregular underground fighting force, operating in its own familiar territory, with the technology and firepower of a modern and fully equipped army.
Yet should the defense experts have been so surprised that this time Israeli military superiority just did not work so well? After all, military history is littered with examples of agile irregular forces endlessly harassing more cumbersome and slower moving armies, however unequal the numbers or the armaments. Napoleon’s huge armies were destroyed in part by such tactics both in Spain in the Peninsular War and in Russia during the disastrous retreat from Moscow.
In the 20th century there were plenty of lessons to be learned by the major powers about guerrilla fighting and how to handle it, sometimes by adopting similar tactics. In Malaysia (then Malaya), in Kenya and in Northern Ireland the British armed forces faced highly organized terrorism and gradually and painfully learned how to cope with this sort of low intensity warfare — both by military and by political means — the iron fist but also the velvet glove.
In Vietnam, and also in Somalia, the Americans found that “overwhelming force,” mainly in the shape of aerial bombardment and helicopter gunship deployment, just did not work. Much more subtle strategies were needed, but were tried too late to prevent defeat and withdrawal.
So no one should have expected the vicious Hezbollah forces, who had had years to burrow both physically and politically into the wounded body of Lebanon, to have been an easy walkover.
Yet this time it appeared that there were some even more powerful currents running in favor of the irregulars against the forces of the Israeli state. Technology and the amazing power of the microchip are now tilting the whole balance of advantage in warfare and ground fighting against heavy weapons and equipment. Tiny and light weapons can now muster unimaginable power. It is as though the proverbial pea-shooter has become “e-enabled,” turbo-boosted to the point where it can pierce the thickest protective armor and find the best-protected target swiftly and accurately.
In short, the miniaturization of weapons, along with the miniaturization of everything from mobile phones to computers, has enabled the modern guerrilla not only to harass regular forces, as he (or she) always could do, but to match their firepower and to destroy them. All that is now needed for a group to acquire the firepower, and therefore the power, to match a full-size, fully trained army is a few months of preparation, time to build up stocks of weaponry, a degree of training in handling the new technology and, of course, plenty of cash to hand to the willing sellers of such arms who populate the world’s armament bazaars.
In the Hezbollah case in Lebanon, the preparations had been going on for many months, with ship and aircraft loads of ultra-sophisticated, high-tech weapons being imported and stockpiled — and being small in volume quite easy to conceal. The cash came, and no doubt continues to come, from Iran, which is awash with revenues from high oil prices. The weapons themselves could have been bought in many places, but were probably liberally supplied through Syria.
If the Israelis, with all their advanced systems, with a supply chain of bombs being flown from the United States and with a tough, brave and well-trained army, cannot wipe out Hezbollah, then this changes everything, not only in the mosaic of the Middle East but in the dynamics of modern conflict.
When they see what is happening in Lebanon, Western policymakers may at last begin to grasp what should have been obvious from the onset of the information and electronic revolution over 20 years ago — namely and simply that the microchip disperses power into more and more hands (good and bad) and smaller and smaller groups, and that where the microchip leaves off, nanotechnology — packing power into invisibly small entities and sources — will take over. Sheer weight of arms no longer translates into power and influence. Big fleets of carriers, squadrons of tanks, armadas of aircraft and strike fighters with devastating rocket power are no longer the key to domination or the insignia of over-arching authority.
Small remains beautiful but small has also become lethal. Those who would seek to establish a new political and social architecture, and a new equilibrium in the unstable and dangerous Middle East, will from now on have to live with that fact.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.