July 23, 2006

Quoted in the St Louis Post-Dispatch

This article appeared in the St Louis Post-Dispatch, and has been picked up by various papers around the country.

Israel’s battle with Hezbollah could have far-reaching consequences
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

----- AN ANALYSIS -----

WASHINGTON — In giving Israel the leeway for an extended assault on Hezbollah, the United States is betting on Israel’s ability to defeat the terrorist group, because any other outcome would embolden the group and its sponsors, Iran and Syria.

So the conflict raises two critical questions:

Can Israel eliminate or at least seriously damage Hezbollah’s military capability?
What will be the consequences if it does?

Even though American attention in the war on terrorism has focused on al-Qaida, many experts believe that Hezbollah is unparalleled among militant forces in terms of firepower and organizational strength. The Lebanese Islamic group was founded a quarter-century ago to fight the Israeli presence in Lebanon.

“They are the most effective, most disciplined, irregular army in the world,” said Rick Francona, who spent 28 years as an Air Force intelligence officer and Pentagon counter-terrorism intelligence official and conducted Middle East operations for the CIA and other agencies.

After more than a week of fighting, it appears Hezbollah will be tested even more severely on the ground by Israeli forces.

Given its military superiority, Israel can degrade Hezbollah’s armed forces, but it won’t wipe them out, says retired Brig. Gen. David Grange, who spent much of the 1980s commanding special operations missions against Hezbollah.

“Israel can’t eliminate them or destroy them, but it can break them pretty hard,” Grange said. “The Israelis can remove a lot of their capability, they can disperse them, and they can destroy some of their units. Can they destroy Hezbollah totally? The answer’s no.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that Hezbollah’s terrorist operatives aren’t concentrated in southern Lebanon and are unlikely to be hit as hard by the Israelis. That means the better Israel does in its military confrontation, the more likely it — and perhaps the United States — may suffer terrorist reprisals.

This is a battle pitting a highly modern military against insurgent forces that have less sophisticated weaponry but can disappear into caves and tunnels. Israel says it seeks to move Hezbollah back from the border, so its rockets cannot easily target Israeli cities.

Hezbollah is credited by many in the region for having been the only force able to successfully take on Israel, when it helped force the Israeli military to withdraw from Lebanon six years ago. It has used the time since to reinforce its position, Francona said.

“They have had six years of unhampered, unhindered time in southern Lebanon to build up all of their military infrastructure, tunnels, caves, hidden launch sites, weapons caches and command bunkers. Israel has excellent intelligence and surveillance capabilities, but you can’t see everything all the time,” he said.

Hezbollah is “too ingrained” in Lebanese society to be eliminated, but Israel has already exacted a toll, Francona said, destroying hundreds of rockets, and will do more damage to Hezbollah with a ground invasion.

He added that Hezbollah has “taken a pounding, yes, but they’re still able to launch rockets into Haifa. I’ve been surprised at how tenacious Hezbollah has been. Every time Israel has crossed the border, they’ve run into a solid wall of fire, been ambushed, lost troops. These guys are religious true believers. They’ll fight, they won’t run.”

A critical Israeli goal will be to prevent re-supplying of Hezbollah, Grange said. “What they’re going to do is isolate them,” Grange said. “The reason they bombed the airport, blockaded the ports, is not to screw up Lebanon. It’s to keep Hezbollah from being reinforced by Iran. The other way is through Syria, but the Israelis are going to block the roads from Damascus and blow stuff up.”

Not everyone agrees Israel will emerge victorious. Retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, who ran the National Security Agency, under President Reagan, says the situation could end up like Iraq, where superior U.S. military capability has been neutralized.

“Hezbollah will probably give the Israelis a licking, just like the Iraqis are giving us a licking,” Odom said, suggesting Hezbollah forces could benefit politically from large-scale casualties. “They’ll have more supporters than they did, and the Israelis will have fewer.”

Hezbollah has committed various terrorist acts in the past two decades: killing 241 Marines in Lebanon, hijacking planes, killing Americans at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, bombing a major Jewish center in Argentina and torturing and killing the CIA chief in Lebanon.

“They killed more Americans than anyone else until 9/11,” Grange said. “If you’re serious about the global war on terrorism, Hezbollah is a big part of it, so someone’s got to take them down. The only ones that are going to do it are the Israelis, so quietly a lot of people want them to do it.”

Tom Diaz, who has consulted for the Justice Department on terrorists’ use of high technology, co-authored a book last year on Hezbollah and the presence of its agents on American soil. He says Hezbollah’s terrorist wing “is in effect an extension of the Iranian apparatus, so that’s the real wild-card part of it.”

If Iranian leaders decide they want to “do something bad to the U.S. or U.S. interests, that’s when we have to worry about” Hezbollah activity, he said.