Clouds of contradiction

An overall assessment of Gabi Ashkenazi’s tenure points to shortcomings in areas such as battle doctrine and commanders’ education.

Ashkenazi looking to the sky 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ashkenazi looking to the sky 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi’s term as chief of General Staff is over, a balance sheet of achievement can be drawn up. His greatest accomplishment is the repair and renewal of the public’s faith in the IDF’s highest echelon. He has been perceived both by IDF troops and the public as a forthright fighter and commander who rebuilt the IDF’s operational effectiveness after the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Improvement in IDF performance was clearly evident in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 – an operation perceived by many as a successful military campaign.
Ashkenazi was also a very cautious and taciturn chief of General Staff, not given to bombast. Some of his critics have interpreted this, wrongly, as a lack of spirit and audacity.
Under Ashkenazi, the IDF has improved on several areas of weakness by reinstating old practices.
These include: a lot of training; a more balanced military buildup which recognizes that ground forces have not become obsolete; greater logistic autonomy and sustainability in the combat units (a lesson learned from the failure of a centralized logistics system during the 2006 war); and the renewal of division and brigade commanders’ courses.
For the first time, ground forces, navy and air force officers have studied together in the Command and Staff College to strengthen their ability to carry out joint operations.
In recent years, the Ground Forces Command doctrine department has been very active in distributing materials to commanders at the regiment and brigade level, and commanders at these levels have been given mandatory reading lists.
Greater emphasis was also placed on training officers in the rules of war and international law, as part of officer training courses at the company, battalion and brigade levels. The IDF and Foreign Ministry have also been cooperating with foreign governments and international organizations to ensure the legality of all IDF operations.
Furthermore, Ashkenazi took a firm stand on commanders’ ethical behavior, as highlighted by his dismissal of two outstanding brigadier generals whose integrity had been stained. He did all this with a semi-hostile defense minister breathing down his neck.
Ashkenazi also worked methodically to prepare a military option vis-à-vis Iran.
FOUR ISSUES, however, cast a shadow on his tenure. The first concerns the IDF’s so-called operational doctrine. The Winograd Commission criticized the operational concept that had been crystallized under former chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, due to its heavy reliance on firepower (especially airpower) and its underestimation of the need for groundforce maneuverability. Ashkenazi seemed to be the right man to formulate a new operational concept.
When observing his behavior on this important matter, however, two contradictory attitudes can be discerned. On one hand, in 2008 Ashkenazi expressed unequivocal commitment to quick battlefield decisions in any type of confrontation.
But battlefield decisions usually require deploying a significant number of ground forces. Is that really what the General Staff is planning to do in the next war? Declarations by OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot leave us confused as to what the real operational concept is. In an interview with Yediot Aharonot in August 2008, Eizenkot said that in the next war the IDF would reapply the “Dahiyya strategy” in response to rockets and missiles launched against Israel, though this time with even greater destructive force, and without hesitating to use disproportional firepower against civilian targets in Lebanon, and if necessary in Syria. He described the hunting down of missile launchers by ground forces as “sheer nonsense.”
Eizenkot made clear that this was not merely his personal view but a strategy already adopted by the highest military echelons.
Another area where Ashkenazi sent contradictory messages pertains to commanders’ education.
In 2007, in reaction to a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee report which pointed to lacunae in that field, he declared that he considered the importance of commanders’ education self-evident.
He also pointed to several steps he had already taken to improve that education.
At the same time, however, he left in the position of chief of the military colleges an officer who continuously expressed opinions detrimental to serious professional education.
Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen, the college commander, openly stated in late 2007 that he did not see any benefit in studying military theory and history – two basic core topics in every serious professional military education. (Hacohen said that, like love, until one experiences war personally one cannot understand what it’s all about.) In his 2006 report, the state comptroller also pointed to certain gaps in the officer corps’ education and training process, such as the lack of sufficient knowledge at the brigade and division levels, the lack of sufficient skills and experience on the part of military instructors at the National Defense College, and a preference on the part of senior commanders to attend academic programs that provide them with managerial skills rather than military and security knowledge relevant to their profession. According to the report, most IDF senior commanders were not National Defense College graduates.
Despite the few improvements in commanders’ education during Ashkenazi’s term, neither the state comptroller nor Ashkenazi seem to have been aware that military issues are hardly studied at the National Defense College. In other words, even if additional senior commanders had graduated from the college, they probably would not have improved their understanding of the military.
A THIRD shortcoming of Ashkenazi’s tenure concerns increased reliance on legal advice during military operations. The Winograd Commission expressed concern over the growing reliance on legal advisers in the course of military operations – a phenomenon termed “judicialization.”
The commission rightly warned against shifting the responsibility from commanding officers to advisers, which might divert commanders’ attention.
But instead of educating commanders to operate under moral and legal constraints, in January 2010 it was reported that Ashkenazi had issued an order requiring consultation with the army’s legal advisers not only in the planning stage of an operation, but even while the mission was under way! To prevent legal advisers from disrupting combat, however, they were authorized to work only with divisional headquarters rather than with brigade or battalion headquarters, as is common in some Western armies.
A fourth cloud that hangs over Ashkenazi’s head has to do with his performance during the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair. The IDF, under his command, deviated from the practice of planning for the worst plausible case, preparing instead for a best-case scenario.
Commandos lacked basic intelligence about the passengers, many of whom were radical Islamists prepared to die in confrontation with IDF troops. Furthermore, despite the delicate and complex situation, Ashkenazi did not personally run the operation, leaving this task instead to the navy chief.
GENERALLY SPEAKING, Gabi Ashkenazi was a good chief of General Staff. He leaves behind a much stronger IDF that is better placed to deter our enemies and fight against them. While Hezbollah and Hamas weapons pose a greater threat than ever, the ability to punish these enemies painfully in a next war has grown exponentially as well. Ashkenazi can take credit for this improvement in IDF operational capabilities.
His actions effectively forced the country’s enemies into a corner: They will suffer mightily if they use their rockets or missiles. This is something Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz will have to develop further.
However, in two very important areas – operational doctrine and commander education – Ashkenazi spoke in two different voices, so his legacy in these areas remains unclear.
The writer is associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center and is reprinted with permission.