What happened to the IDF?

Although eulogies of mighty armies are often premature, the IDF's own Boer War begs soul searching.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
In storming Lebanon, Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz may have sought a campaign as militarily swift and politically rewarding as the Falklands War, but what they really got was a Boer War. The clash that pitted half-a-million imperial troops against 88,000 poorly equipped guerrillas lasted an excruciating 32 months, during which the British lost a succession of battles as well as 7,000 soldiers and a great deal of priceless prestige. The Boers' loss of 35,000 men, and their ultimate surrender, mattered little. The world's leading superpower appeared overweight, lethargic and stagnant. A German military attache, after having seen victorious British units parade in London, is said to have been so appalled by their shabby appearance and disorderly marching that he cabled Berlin that they could be defeated on the battlefield. Such eulogies of mighty armies have been as common throughout history as they often proved premature. Still, the Israeli army's own Boer War begs soul searching. The IDF failed, for the first time ever, to shift the fighting to the enemy's territory; it failed to fight imaginatively; it failed to coordinate efficiently among its fighting units; it failed to provide them with adequate tactical intelligence, and occasionally it even failed to deliver basic supplies. And perhaps most ominously, it seemed to have forgotten what used to be its forte - the grand maneuver. In this war there was no Faluja Pocket, where Egyptian troops were trapped during the War of Independence, nor anything like the Mitla Parachuting of 1956, or the airborne conquest of the southern Golan in '67, or the crossing of the Suez Canal in '73, or even the otherwise inglorious, but militarily efficient, run on Beirut in 1982. Somehow, just when the IDF finally enjoyed the kind of numerical and diplomatic superiority it had always lacked, it could not swiftly win. Why? SOME OF what went wrong was circumstantial. Take for instance the inspiration drawn from America's recent wars. Tactically, there was such admiration for NATO's successful attack on Yugoslavia in '99, which was dominated by air power. Strategically, there was a feeling that with the demise of Saddam Hussein's army and the so-called Eastern Threat - comprising the territorially contiguous Iran, Iraq and Syria - the prospects for a "classical" conventional war all but disappeared. Similarly, this decade's war on Palestinian terror, and the hard-won successes that came with it, not only created the concept of the low-intensity war in which the IDF emerged as a pioneer, but also misled many to believe that such is the face of the postmodern battlefield. Meanwhile, the ongoing friction with Hamas enhanced the impression that just like the IDF's main challenge will be low-intensity wars, its main enemy will be the Palestinians. While this may still prove valid in the future, this summer's war has made it plain that the classical, conventional battlefield, has yet to vanish; that the IDF has enemies besides the Palestinians; and that air power has its limits. BACK WHEN Ariel Sharon went into politics, some feared he would "surround the Knesset with tanks," as former finance minister Simcha Ehrlich memorably put it. Paradoxically, the opposite happened, as Sharon demilitarized the military. Once, during a conversation I had with him, Sharon called in his adjunct at the time, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, to report on a foiled terror attack. Then, having reported, the fully uniformed general took a chair and sat in the back of the office for the remainder of the meeting while Sharon discussed the kind of pure politics that is the bread-and-butter of any prime minister's workday. Galant, a naval commando who later joined the ground forces, is fortunately doing a very good job these days as OC Southern Command. Still, the experience he was handed as a military adjunct was part of Sharon's scorn for governance in general and misdirection of the IDF in particular, as the appointment of another adjunct, Moshe Kaplinsky, as deputy chief of staff, now showed. In his case, the years spent roaming political corridors distanced the general so much from the military experience that once back in the field, as Dan Halutz's second-in-command, he failed in his most fundamental task, which was to see to it that the army's emergency warehouses are adequately supplied, and that reserve units are properly trained. The IDF was drugged in other ways as well. The zeitgeist's near-mystical worship of technology made the army swamp colonels and brigadier-generals with ultra-digital gadgetry that deluded some of them into believing they could manage battlefields without attending them. This violated the IDF's most sacred value, the aharai [follow me] concept on which generations of Middle Israelis were raised. Legendary commanders like Rafael Eitan, Yitzhak Rabin and Meir Har-Zion were a lot less eloquent than the current generation of generals, and lacked the kind of sophistication earned while hobnobbing in cocktail parties. But when Rabin led the IDF it was highly disciplined, well trained and fully supplied, and when Eitan commanded a division during the Yom Kippur War, he was alongside his soldiers dodging the enemy's bullets, as were the rest of his colleagues - including one, Maj.-Gen. Albert Mendler, who was killed fighting in the Sinai. To them, the concept of commanding charging troops via a plasma screen several miles away would have been ludicrous. YET THE most decisive cause of the IDF's mental vertigo was the retreat from Gaza. Yes, Middle Israelis backed that move last year and don't regret it today, but they also think that assigning its execution to the IDF rather than the police was a travesty. Having seen thousands of its troops and officers assigned a task that by its nature is purely civilian, as it had nothing to do with fighting the country's enemies; having seen its very commander-in-chief replaced in the wake of his misgiving about that assignment; and having then seen a new government vow to engage in even more ambitious retreats, the IDF's entire command spine began forgetting its real raison d'etre - confrontation with the enemy. Listening to the political leadership's conceited talk of the imminent dawn of an age of normalcy whereby ours would become "a country that's fun to live in," they even began to doubt that we actually had enemies, not only beyond the territories, but even in the low-intensity battle zones of Gaza and Nablus, which were to vanish in the wake of the retreats they would focus on carrying out. NOW THE IDF knows. The Israeli army has learned the hard way that it still has enemies, that it is still expected to fight old-style conventional wars, that wars are still won on the ground, that the fighting must be shifted to the enemy's territory, that intelligence must be reinforced, that attacks must be inventive, complex and agile, that supplies must be fresh, full and battle-ready, that reserves must be trained, and that battlefield leadership must be as personal as the biblical Gideon's was when he told the 300 men he led to victory over thousands of Midianites: "Watch me and do exactly as I do." Ill as the army was revealed to be in this conflict, it can be cured fairly quickly, provided its commanders are told in no uncertain terms - maybe through legislation - that never in the future will they be assigned to anything that does not constitute fighting Israel's enemies, or saving human lives. That, after all, is what Ben-Gurion meant by calling it the Israel Defense Forces.