980) Why armies win wars

Recently there have been some very strange conclusions drawn by many as to what makes for military success.

Terrorism does not bring victory but only headlines. By its very nature, acts of terrorism do not have the strategic weight to defeat a country. This was seen clearly in the Armenian and Kurdish campaigns against Turkey, the Palestinians and Hezbollah against Israel and that of Osama bin Ladin against the United States. . . .

The same does apply to the new tactics of heavily armed terrorist groups fighting as semi-military formations. This first appeared in the Iraqi war of 2003, when Saddam Hussein sent out his army as irregular forces to harass the advancing Americans. At the time, this technique stirred up lots of unease -- even panic for a few days among American commentators -- but in the end it amounted to little.

Putting up a good fight or inflicting casualties on an enemy does not win wars, either. In Arab circles today the fact that Hezbollah gunmen did not throw down their arms and run away -- but actually fought back for a while -- is seen as a miracle of resistance. Yet no group or nation should pin its hopes on such nonsense. A lot of old truths about military affairs still prevail, and nowadays democracies are better able than dictatorships to follow these principles:

1-- Correcting mistakes. This is extraordinarily important. It requires an honest evaluation of what went wrong and how it can be fixed. Such willingness to admit error and energetically repair it differentiates democracies from dictatorships, which for political and societal reasons, are much more secretive and slow to admit doing wrong.

2-- Initiative for officers. Given the dictatorial and top-down nature of Arab and Iranian society, decisions are taken at the top and deviations are punished. A good example is the rigid structure of the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war. But armies must be able to react to new technology and battlefield situations. Failure to do so spells defeat. This factor is very much incorporated into Israeli training and practice

3-- Technology. Despite much talk about ideology and spirit trumping modern weapons systems, this does not usually happen. Keeping ahead is a never-ending and expensive effort, but it yields fruit. Turkey reaps benefits from American and Israeli technological advances that its potential adversaries do not possess.

4-- Value of the individual soldier. For enlisted men especially, conditions in many armies are terrible. They are not treated fairly, much less respectfully. Despite the high motivation of some groups, like Hezbollah, this only applies to small numbers of soldiers even within that organization. When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated he never believed Israel would go to war over two kidnapped soldiers, he shows he does not understand the Israeli ethos in this regard. Soldiers who know they will not be abandoned or generally mistreated will fight better.

5-- Not being suicidal. The willingness to be a martyr is highly touted by Hezbollah and some other groups. Yet in fact, while it sometimes has its use, this is not very good strategically. It is no accident that Gen. George Patton said that the object of war was not to die for one's country but to make the SOB on the other side die for his. You do not want to sacrifice your most highly motivated, best-trained soldiers and their equipment if you can avoid it. Half of being a man, says an Arab proverb, is knowing when to run away. Suicidal behavior does not win wars, and no number of naïve media articles will change that fact.

Air superiority. While the limits of air power were shown again in the Lebanon war, having control of the air is of major importance. Indeed, one of the biggest problems Israel faced -- using tanks to hit bunkers when Hezbollah had advanced anti-tank weapons -- was caused by the insufficient use of air power (a mistake already being corrected). If Israel ever gets into a war with Syria, the meaning of air superiority will be seen quite clearly. The superiority of the Turkish Air Force is extremely important.

Armored superiority. Even if Hezbollah destroyed more tanks than Israel liked during the Lebanon war, it would be far worse to face a sizeable enemy armored force, as Israel did in the 1967 and 1973 wars. If tanks are kept improved ahead of anti-tank weapons, this factor is of great value. Tanks are of less use, of course, in Turkey's strategic picture but still vital.

Superiority at sea. Being able to interdict sea traffic and bombard enemy coasts is a great advantage. The Turkish Navy can hold its own in the Aegean or Mediterranean.

A reliable source of resupply. True, Hezbollah receives generous arms from Syria and Iran, but they will not necessarily arrive on the battlefield. Weapons used up cannot easily be replaced by the enemy. Turkey and Israel can, in contrast, depend generally on Western sources, though of course there are some problems here.

Superior intelligence. Despite carping about a lack of information on the details of Hezbollah bunkers and some other issues, Israeli intelligence remained remarkably good. Forgive me for not going into detail, but if one takes for example the location of longer-range Hezbollah missiles and Syrian resupply convoys, Israel did very well. Intelligence must also be honest -- having a good sense of the other side's society and refusing to lie to score points with superiors.

Deterrence. While Israeli deterrence has supposedly been dented, this is more big talk than real belief. The key to the Israeli strategic system is the ability to take the war to the enemy and inflict heavy damage. This only does not work if countries can fight their battles on someone else's territory and thus don't care (as with Iran and Syria in Lebanon or Syria and Iran using the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK]) about the damage. But one miscalculation and Syria would have found itself the target, as its leaders better know if they are going to avoid disaster. Turkey has excellent deterrence as shown in its facing down Syria on the issue of expelling the PKK chief.

Ironically, it is forgotten that the real Arab margin, in Lebanon and in past wars, is not military ability but the fact that much of the West will rush in and try to save them from total defeat. In the 1956, 1973, 1982 and 2006 wars this was the only thing that spared the Arab side from catastrophe.

Of course, the new guerrilla-terrorist-conventional strategy used by Saddam in Iraq and by Hezbollah in Lebanon has advantages. Yet conventional military logic still makes sense. This is what everyone should keep in mind when talking about the military factor in the Middle East.

Sunday, September 3, 2006
Turkish daily News


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