By Raffique Shah
War is hell, says an adage that rings truer today than when it was first coined, maybe centuries ago. And in war, truth is the first casualty-another adage that has remained unchanged from the primitive period, when giant catapults were the weapons of choice, to today’s not-so-smart bombs that seem to have an uncanny honing ability in favour of unarmed civilians over combatants. Still, for all its brutality and its inhumanity, war holds a perverse fascination for those who were schooled in military history, strategy and tactics. This personal background brings me back to the deepening conflict in the Middle-East that seems poised to plunge the world into a cataclysm last experienced in World War II, which few alive today experienced or remember.
Close to three weeks ago Israel upped the continuous conflict ante when its forces started battering Lebanon from the air and with artillery. This rain of death and destruction that poured from the skies, ostensibly to target the Hezbollah, has wreaked untold damage to that small country’s infrastructure and its population. From a military standpoint, Israel, with the mightiest military in that part of the world, thanks to over-generous US support, sought to “soften” Hezbollah targets before resorting to the ground war. It has long been acknowledged that while one may wreak destruction via air strikes and “smart bombs”, one cannot hope to win any war until one goes on the ground to defeat the enemy.
An over-confident Israel, having successfully conducted similar campaigns against its Arab neighbours in 1948, 1967, 1973, and thereafter against the Palestinians and Hezbollah, had its strategy mapped out down to the final flushing of Nasrallah. Up to last Friday Israel’s remote war strategy had killed over 700 mainly civilians, wounded thousands more (mostly women and children), destroyed three airports, 62 bridges, three dams and more than 5,000 houses and apartment buildings. Hezbollah in contrast, not being a regular army (its “forces” are believed to number little more than 5,000 trained fighters), responded with daily barrages of rockets that killed few Israelis, and with mortar fire that was even less effective.
One would have thought, therefore, that a land assault by its superior, armoured fighting units would have enjoyed a cakewalk through southern Lebanon. For civilians to understand the type of ground war we are dealing with, bear in mind these troops are attacking not on foot, but from close-to-40-tonne AFVs armed with an array of deadly hardware. These armoured vehicles pack long range chain-guns with armour-piercing capability, coaxial machine guns and missiles with ranges of up to four kilometres. Each infantryman wears body armour and his personal weapon combines thermal imaging with laser range-finding. In other words, he’s as close to the six-million-dollar-man of TV fame as you can get.
The enemy in this case, “ragheads” (a derogatory term for Arabs), have some decent rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and anti-tank weapons. But more than these they have the inspiration of a David (as I wrote two weeks ago), and the determination of the Japanese kamikaze fighters. They are willing to give their lives in the name of defending their territory. Thus it was when soldiers from Israel’s elite Golami Brigade hit the ground near the village of Bint Jbeil, they must have thought they were close to final victory in this war.
Having pounded the enemy for days, they thought they would have encountered only rubble. Instead, they ran into ambush after ambush, mounted by men seasoned in desert warfare. Within hours, 11 Israeli soldiers lay dead with scores more seriously wounded. The wounded were crying in agony as the Hezbollah fighters poured more fire on them. It took the Israelis several hours to extricate their troops, and that only by using their finest tanks as ambulances. Reporters on the Israeli side of the border wrote of weeping commanders and soldiers, dazed by a taste of real battle, wandering back to safety like a bedraggled, defeated army.
By Friday last, the Israelis had called up 30,000 reservists and returned to aerial bombings and artillery attacks. The ground war had ground to a halt, an instructive lesson that Israel did not learn from the bitter experiences of the US and UK forces sent into Iraq. To defeat any army, regular or irregular, one must eventually do it on the ground. If 5,000-odd semi-trained irregulars could hold off the best that Israel could throw at them, what next? Is this the beginning of the end of Israel as a superpower in the Middle East?
Two weeks ago this would have been unthinkable. Indeed, when I wrote about retribution, I never thought it would come this quickly, and with such brutality. Now Arab nations that were fence-sitting are beginning to crow loudly. Bush and Blair are in a pickle. Short of opening up the Pandora’s Box of nuclear war, Israel seems to have met its Bint Jbeil, much the way Napoleon met his Waterloo.