Counterinsurgency (COIN) & Civilians: Israeli vs. American Approaches

How the U.S. learned the hard way from Israel what not to do when it comes to counterinsurgency (COIN) and civilians, and the clear differences in results.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 18, 2015  

By Brian E. Frydenborg, February 18th, 2015 (updated/expanded February 19th)

This article was republished by Ammon News.

The following is also largely excerpted and adapted from an earlier article I wrote this summer, Part II of The Israel-Hamas Gaza High-Stakes Poker Game of Death, itself part of a larger article that is available as an eBook format at Barnes & Noble,Amazon, or as an ePub file.

When I was writing earlier about the conflict this past summer in Gaza between the Israeli government and Hamas, I noted that intent is one of the three main criteria by which a party’s violence in a conflict should be judged, the other two being types of tactics used and their immediate likely effects and, most importantly, the actual effects of the violence.

Intent is something that can be multifaceted. A party to a conflict can have stated intents, which may or may not be true, and unstated intents, which sometimes can be pretty apparent, but other times can be pretty mystifying at best. Here, one must distinguish between a party deliberately and indiscriminately targeting civilians for death, and one that does not target civilians for death as an end-target unto themselves. Keep in mind that this intent is a separate criterion from looking at the actual casualties caused by the violence.

In terms of intent regarding their respective acts of violence, I looked at both Hamas’ intent and the Israeli government’s. Hamas had two main categories of violent acts in this conflict: the rocket attacks, for which “all Israelis” were declared legitimate targets and which were intended to kill civilians, and engaging the Israeli military in and around Gaza, which targeted the Israeli military and can be viewed as self-defense. Israel’s attacks, in contrast, are part of a general, longstanding policy that “is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties [author Roi Maor’s emphasis],” which, though leading at times to high civilian casualties, is meant to act as a deterrent, hitting civilian areas that are used as military bases and trying to make civilians think twice about supporting or allowing militant activity in their neighborhood, or to get them to pressure their government and/or militants to abandon hostilities; conversely, the militants/government may also think twice about engaging in violence if the likely response will be massive harm inflicted upon their own civilian charges, for whom they are supposed to be fighting in the first place. Still, while not targeting civilians specifically for death as a policy, the IDF has displayed a callous attitude towards Palestinian civilians, and one of the IDF’s ethics code authors asserting that only the safety of its personnel should affect tactics and that no additional risks to its own personnel should be accepted by the IDF to prevent civilian casualties is something that at the very least should be debated vigorously, as such a philosophy seemingly contributed to the high levels of civilian casualties in Operation Cast Lead, taking place just before Obama took office. Furthermore, the IDF’s own investigations into abuses or questionable actions are not regarded as serious. One non-military panel found that the IDF was not even following its own procedures regarding civilians.

As it is, there is considerable and ongoing debate involving a wide variety of views regarding tactics and noncombatants since this is a grey area of international law. Here are some of Israel’s official rules regarding combat and civilians. Thomas Smith, writing in 2008, noted that U.S. tactics earlier in the Iraq War were killing higher levels of civilians and alienating Iraqis, mentioning that U.S. consultation with the IDF (as reported late in December 2003 by Dexter FilkinsJulian Borger, and Seymour Hersh) may have been a factor that actually brought about a deterioration of both tactics and the relationship between Americans and Iraqis, or, as he termed it, brought about the “Palestinianization” of Iraq. He also noted that Gen. Peter Chiarelli’s installment as a major commander beginning in January 2006 and, in January 2007, the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as overall commander in Iraq led to a distinctly different approach that took far more care to prioritize Iraqi civilians’ needs and safety and produced some better results. It was Petraeus who had been responsible for revising, improving, and co-authoring the U.S. Army’s own counterinsurgency manual [2014 edition here] at the time, wisely writing in one heading “The More Force Used, the Less Effective It Is” and also writing that “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if the collateral damage or the creation of blood feuds leads to the recruitment of fifty more.” Currently, the U.S. Army’s own manual from 2012 on Civilian Casualty Mitigationpainstakingly and correctly notes that

Short-term thinking must be avoided because it is likely to lead to behavior that will generate widespread resentment and lead to a more insecure operational area in the future. Over time, units focused entirely on their own protection are likely to adopt a pattern of maneuvering aggressively, firing weapons indiscriminately, threatening civilians, and causing unnecessary CIVCASs [civilian casualties]

and that “Aggressive measures to protect the force in the short term can place units at greater risk in the future if resulting CIVCAS incidents alienate the population.” Not so much out of a moral principle, then, but out of consideration for the prospects of the Army’s own long-term success and safety and American national interests, it seems the U.S. military’s doctrine would allow exposing soldiers to more risk in the short term to better protect civilians because high civilian casualties over the medium and long-term can make an operating environment even more dangerous for the Army if a population grows increasingly hostile and/or becomes more inclined to support the enemy because of such civilian casualties. Essentially, it means that one must, at least to a degree, think strategically even when acting tactically. This is a wise policy, and, as it seems there is not this level of strategic consideration in Israel’s official military literature in terms of its tactics, Israel would do well to consider adopting a similar approach, not only for the sake of Palestinians and other Arabs that Israel could be fighting again in the future, but for the sake of the safety of Israeli military personnel in the long-run and for the sake of Israeli national interests. Thus, Israeli doctrine differs considerably from American doctrine, and, in fact, it is often counterproductive to Israel’s long-term interests and actually prevents it from making strategic gains or resolving conflicts, causing Israel to suffer from the“institutionalization of temporary solutions.” It is a telling flaw of Israeli thinking that the U.S. military was able to see many of its mistakes relating to civilians and adjust its tactics and strategy after only a few years of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan while Israel has been occupying Palestinians for almost fifty years and has been unable to see the need to make similar adjustments to its tactics or strategic thinking. Rather than the other way around, then, it would seem that Israel could learn a lot from America’s recent evolution of its military thinking and practice.

It is a telling flaw of Israeli thinking that the U.S. military was able to see many of its mistakes relating to civilians and adjust its tactics and strategy after only a few years of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan while Israel has been occupying Palestinians for almost fifty years and has been unable to see the need make similar adjustments to its tactics or strategic thinking.

Col. Tony Pfaff, while recognizing and embracing the utilitarian arguments, argues that there are also ethical and moral responsibilities not to transfer an excessive and high amount of risk to noncombatants and to pursue alternatives to options that would do so, since soldiers essentially exercise sovereignty over where they operate, sovereignty that makes them partly responsible for area civilians. For him, the challenge is one of balancing risk between the soldiers themselves and noncombatants, not a transfer of the maximum possible to one party or the other; with this, I would agree.

Another part of the intent behind the choice of Israel’s tactics is very political, so force is applied in a very Clausewitzian way for Israel here: the father of Israel’s military doctrine (termed Low Intensity Conflict) for most of the last few decades made it clear that this doctrine was designed “To undermine the adversary’s determination and to lead to the adversary’s abandoning his objectives, through a cumulative process of inflicting physical, economic, and psychological damage, and to lead the adversary to realize that his own armed engagement is hopeless.” Thus, force is directed at the population as a whole not in order to kill them but with the intent to make them submit to Israeli political designs over time through attrition. This strategy actually reveals an unwillingness to compromise or even attempt a political settlement, and helps to explain why Israeli political leaders like SharonNetanyahu, Lieberman, and others have actively tried to undermine the peace process. It is also worth noting that if this approach fails to break the enemy into submission it will only serve to increase violence and prolong the conflict.

As one paper states, “Israel’s general strategic goal has always been that of maintaining the status quo by deterring major attacks against it.” This in and of itself is essentially a strategy that lacks strategy, or a strategy that is a prescription for a merely tactical approach. A cynicism bound both by almost two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust mindset is hardly a way of thinking that is likely to lead to a brighter future. That Israel’s leaders may be resigned to an inevitability of the status quo is both a failure of imagination and a danger to the future of Israel. It was David Ben-Gurion himself, the founder of Israel and its longtime leader, who said that “the most dangerous enemy to Israel’s security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security;” and it was a Palestinian journalist who said that “the legal father of the suicide bomber is the Israeli checkpoint, whilst his mother is the house demolition.”

We can see that, where America’s change of tactics in Iraq brought Iraqi Sunnis who had been formerly hostile to U.S. forces into the U.S. fold as effective allies in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia that contributed to a major improvement in security there, conversely, (virtually?) no Palestinian would think of voluntarily cooperating with the their decades-long-occupiers, the Israelis. Though, unfortunately, as I’ve previously noted, Iraqi’s recently ousted ex-Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki wasted and destroyed these security gains through his disastrously sectarian policies, this sad fact does not erase the very real gains of American-led COIN operations in Iraq before America formally withdrew its forces form there.

Finally, a cautionary note: as is always possible, there may be differences between official doctrine and practice.

It is sad that Israel’s philosophy is one which intends to bring about political submission of the civilian population, and to cause them “maximal civilian distress” as part of this process until that submission occurs. The U.S. found out, for all the world (including Israel) to see, during the Vietnam war that causing civilians distress and being less than discriminating is a recipe for failure, for disaster, for driving civilians into the arms of the enemy, and for increasing the risk to and casualties among your own troops. Sad, too, that, while not going anywhere near as far as it did in Vietnam, America still used tactics that were too heavy-handed early in the Iraq War that alienated many Iraqis and turned them against U.S. forces. These tactics were ineffective and counterproductive, and were inspired in part by Israel’s own tactics, which are also ineffective and counterproductive. That American leadership recognized this and changed course after only a few years in Iraq is a telling positive about America’s ability to adapt and learn from its mistakes, while Israel’s leadership doubling down on not taking into account civilians as part of a dynamic and long-term operating environment is a telling characteristic of its leadership’s failed approach, counterproductive mentality, and seeming inability to see the bigger picture, to the detriment of both Arabs involved in Israel’s military space of operations and Israelis themselves.

As Petraeus and other Americans realized, the civilian is both the ultimate means and ultimate end in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, not simply a potential enemy to be intimidated and beaten into submission, as Israelis think.

UPDATE July 17th, 2016: Sadly, these dynamics outlined here can be seen to a degree in America’s recent police shootings in Dallas and today’s in Baton Rouge, as well as shootings of black Americans by police. Does America have a fringe black “intifada” on its hands as a result of unaddressed police brutality?

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