Can a Conventional Army Vanquish a Terrorist Insurgency?


No. 550   January 2007

  • The backdrop of Israel’s 2006 war with Hizballah, and the U.S.-led campaign against the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, has led many analysts to conclude that conventional military forces cannot vanquish terrorist groups waging an insurgency campaign. This approach has encouraged a large degree of defeatism in many Western countries that have preferred to withdraw from such confrontations instead of standing their ground.
  • Total victory is not the sole model of victory which history recognizes. Israel enjoyed a temporary victory over Palestinian terror in Gaza in the beginning of the 1970s, when Ariel Sharon was head of the IDF Southern Command. The terror did indeed return to Gaza, but this was after fifteen years of quiet, and the new terror was essentially different from its predecessor. Historically, successful counterinsurgency campaigns were waged by the U.S. in the Philippines (1899-1902) and by the British in Malaya (1948-1960).
  • It is necessary to adopt an alternative concept of victory, which should be called “minimal victory,” in which terror is not destroyed, but is contained at a minimal level, and one must invest constant energy in order to prevent its eruption. For many years, this was what the British achieved in Northern Ireland and the Spanish against the Basques.  Temporary victory and minimal victory do not provide a solution to the ideological conflict which forms the basis of the armed struggle and terror. Nonetheless, a political solution is not the affair of the army, and efforts to obtain it cannot be divorced from the obligation to fight determinedly against any attempt by the enemy to secure achievements through violence, as in the case of the present attempt by the Palestinians to attain political achievements through terror.
  • This “minimal victory,” in which terror is contained and checked before it strikes, becomes more significant if, due to the terror organizations’ prolonged lack of success, they consciously or not decide to reduce the number of their terror attempts. Such an achievement is possible, for example, when the terror bodies are too busy protecting their own lives instead of planning terror and carrying it out.
  • Israel went to war in the West Bank in April 2002 in Operation “Defensive Shield” after it counted 132 dead, all of them civilians, in the preceding month (meaning the equivalent of 1,400 deaths a year). In a continuous and uninterrupted effort since that campaign, Israel’s terror casualty rate declined to 11 civilians for all of 2006. This is the type of victory over terror that one can demand of the army.
  • If the decision on the battlefield does not lead the political bodies to an understanding that the situation permits them to withstand the demands of the terror organizations, and they elect for one reason or another to compromise or surrender, withdraw or concede, then all the work invested by the military echelon will be in vain.

The adoption of two erroneous assumptions – the first that terror is more determined and resilient than the democratic state and the second that victory is always a matter of the mind and is not a product of coercive physical measures – has induced many to believe that there is no military way to cope with terror in order to vanquish it. These kinds of assertions have become more common in much of the discourse concerning Israel’s war with Hizballah in 2006 and the war of the U.S.-led coalition against insurgent forces in Iraq. History – even the history of the State of Israel – proves that those making this contention are seriously mistaken.  Indeed, successful counterinsurgency campaigns were waged by the U.S. in the Philippines (1899-1902) and by the British in Malaya (1948-1960).

The Military’s Mistake

I would not be writing this article if I had not heard from a student at the Israel Defense Forces Staff and Command College that there are lecturers who assert before the students that “an army cannot vanquish terror” and that “only a political process can bring about a cessation of terror.” The way the student grasped this is that we are dealing with a fundamental argument applicable to every possible encounter between an army and terror, in any part of the world, and that such a conclusion is undoubtedly accurate in the struggle between the IDF and Palestinian terror.

Is it only my imagination that some of these very same lecturers are cloaking their lack of understanding for the sphere of war in general, and the war against terror in particular, with mellifluous words and pseudoscientific arguments? We are dealing with an argument which historical experience clearly refutes?

The “inability” argument is frequently put forward in unprofessional language which creates a new terminology, which is unintelligible to everybody. This, in turn, facilitates the avoidance of a genuine clarification of what is being discussed and of the actual situation.1 When did this tainted phenomenon mature in our midst and yield a situation where some military men prefer to evade their obligation and responsibility to vanquish terror and pass the buck on to the statesmen? This is not purely a question of abstract philosophy, but one which carries great practical significance because the elected officials, who are left without any military option against terror, must either flee a confrontation with terror or submit to its demands. If such will be the case, then Israel’s security is likely to slowly deteriorate, exactly what those who pursue terror expect. Here I will seek to elucidate that an army can emerge victorious over terror – on condition that it is made clear what exactly is meant by “victory,” and what are the practical results that one can expect from the army in the context of such a victory.

In order to conduct a fruitful discussion, it is necessary to accurately define all the components of the problem, namely: what is an “army” in the context of fighting terror, what precisely does the term “victory” mean, and what sort of “terror” are we dealing with?

Defining the Essential Terms

Army

An “army,” in this case, is not merely the “armed forces,” but comprises the security organizations, and especially the intelligence community in its broader sense. In the particular case of the State of Israel, the question is not whether the IDF can vanquish terror, but whether the general array of the IDF, the General Security Services, the Mossad, the police, and the national economic and financial bodies that function together in a well-coordinated effort can vanquish terror. Thus, anybody examining whether the IDF, which is the only body defined as an “army,” can, by itself, vanquish terror will have to respond in the negative.

Terror

The concept “terror” encompasses four types of terror, but all employ deliberate violence against civilians in order to obtain political, religious, national, or ideological objectives:

  1. Internal terror of the anarchistic variant which operates against an existing regime.
  2. Cross-border terror of the type waged from Jordan by the PLO against the IDF in Judea and Samaria during the 1960s; the war waged by Hizballah from southern Lebanon and presently by the Palestinians from the Gaza Strip against Israel.
  3. International terror of the al-Qaeda variant, which found expression in the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the attacks in London, the firing of an anti-aircraft missile at an El Al plane in Kenya, and the attacks in Istanbul.
  4. Terror waged by someone who contends to be fighting against an occupier, such as the Palestinian terror in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) or that of the Iraqis against the Americans in Iraq; namely, terror that is carried out against a state whose military forces are situated in the area where the terror is perpetrated.

This discussion deals exclusively with the question of the feasibility of vanquishing terror which is operating in an area which is at least nominally controlled by the military forces of the state which is combating terror – the fourth type – though in many cases the various types of terror intermingle. Some of the conclusions are applicable to combating other types, especially that of cross-frontier terror.

Victory

What type of victory is to be achieved? The answer should serve as the focus of discussion regarding the army’s mission and its part in annihilating terror. The military concept of “victory” is more familiar from the realm of conventional warfare, when the enemy is defeated, destroyed, or deprived of his ability to continue the war, even if he should so desire. Frequently, military victory also influences the will of the state whose army has been defeated, and it ceases to think in terms of the resumed use of military force, but this objective is not a prerequisite for the current definition. During the latter half of the twentieth century the model of “total victory” of the Second World War type was assimilated as part of military doctrine. What characterized the close of that war was that, following the destruction of the German army and the military conquest of Germany, and following Japan’s surrender and conquest after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs, the Allies controlled both countries. During the years of their sojourn in Berlin and Tokyo they erected new regimes which were totally different from the predecessor regimes in both countries. This was total victory, based on military victory, which transformed two fanatic and militaristic countries into avowedly peace-loving regimes.

Yet this is not the sole model of victory which history recognizes. For example, the defeat of Germany in the First World War was totally different and, as proof of the matter, Germany, twenty-one years later, embarked on another great war. Such was also the case of the defeat of Egypt and Syria in the Six-Day War. Six years after that victory the two again attacked Israel. These precedents will allow us to define the military victory required against terror.

We can speak of three levels of victory:

  1. Total Victory – Total victory eliminates the terror bodies and their demands from the political and global map, and no one except those who were victimized by terror recalls that it was ever part of reality. Such, for example, occurred in the defeat of Communist terror in Greece after the Second World War. Paying a bloody price, the Greek army aided by the British managed to liquidate the terror movement, and after that war concluded, Greece never faced a Communist threat. The result of the fighting against rebels in Oman during the 1970s was similar: the Sultan, whose son today rules the Persian Gulf country, managed with British aid to liquidate the rebels who received assistance from neighboring countries. If a revolt were to take place in the Sultanate, it would not be related to the terror movements which were totally liquidated more than thirty years ago. The Palestinian terror against the British and the Jews in 1936, as well as the Palestinian terror in Jordan in 1970, were both liquidated by force and did not return to threaten the British Mandatory Government in Palestine or the Hashemite Regime in Jordan.
  2. Temporary Victory – This was the case with the victory over Palestinian terror in Gaza in the beginning of the 1970s, when Ariel Sharon was head of the IDF Southern Command. After the liquidation of the terror in Gaza, the IDF reduced the size of the forces which controlled the Gaza Strip to isolated units, and Israelis could circulate there almost without trepidation. The terror did indeed return to Gaza, but this was after fifteen years of quiet, and the new terror was essentially different from its predecessor. Similarly, it appears that the victory over Kurdish terror in Turkey is of the temporary variety, although it’s possible that there will be a surprise for the better, and the Turks won’t have to endure such terror again.
  3. Minimal Victory – This is a victory that does not produce many years of tranquility, but achieves only a “repressed quiet,” requiring the investment of continuous effort to preserve it. The terror is not destroyed, but is contained at a minimal level, and one must invest constant energy in order to prevent its eruption. For many years, this was what the British achieved in Northern Ireland and the Spanish against the Basques.

Temporary victory and minimal victory do not provide a solution to the ideological conflict which forms the basis of the armed struggle and terror. As long as any reason whatsoever exists – political, national, ethnic, economic, religious, ideological, etc. – or an amalgam of all the causes, which facilitate the recruitment of people to the terror movements, and as long as there is an active hardcore which has an interest in prolonging terror, one must expect terror to continue or be renewed. A military effort is not expected – and in most circumstances is unable – to solve a problem of historical dimensions. If all the terror bodies of the other side have not been liquidated, then a complete and total solution to such a conflict can in principle be provided solely by a political solution. Nonetheless, one must reemphasize: a political solution is not the affair of the army, and efforts to obtain it cannot be divorced from the obligation to fight determinedly against any attempt by the enemy to secure achievements through violence, as in the case of the present attempt by the Palestinians to attain political achievements through terror.

This distinction between these two levels of dealing with a problem must be clear: a solution to the conflict lies in the hands of the statesmen, but the army – and only the army – is the relevant party as long as there is no such solution, and its responsibility is to check the violent aspect of the conflict.

Part of the widespread misinterpretation in certain circles is caused by confusion between terror and the ideological conflict, with which the army does not have the tools to contend. Hence, people draw the conclusion that “there is no military solution.” In general, as stated, the army is expected to address onlythe violent aspect of the conflict, which is terror, and is not expected to discover a solution or to fight in order to find an exit strategy from the conflict in toto. It would be preferable if the army would not term the fight against terror a “limited conflict,” but use its proper name: “war on terror” in the literal sense. The semantic change would perhaps help the army comprehend that it is obligated to combat terror without any excuses due to the very fact that it is indeed an army.

Of course in the general framework of such fighting, one must address aspects of psychological warfare, and contend with the financing of terror and incorporate other non-violent aspects which supplement military activities. But all these supplementary activities are not performed within the political dimension of solving the dispute in general, but in terms of impairing the ability of the terror bodies to carry out their plans.

It clearly emerges from the foregoing that as long as the conflict which led to the eruption of terror has not concluded, and it is still in full force, the army’s fundamental objective is to destroy the capability of the other side to employ terror. Irrespective of whether this takes a one-time effort, or whether the objective will require continued activity over the course of years, this objective is crystal clear and is of a military nature by any professional yardstick. However, it cannot be obtained if those who are expected to execute the task are using vague concepts such as “attrition,” “cognition,” “effects,” and other terms which permit one to argue that terror cannot be liquidated.

“Minimal victory,” namely, that which can contain and check terror a moment before it strikes, becomes more significant if, due to the terror organizations’ prolonged lack of success, they consciously or not decide to reduce the number of their terror attempts. This situation would mean “victory” on a much higher plane, because it signifies that not only has their implementation capability been impaired, but also their ability to pass from intention to action. Such an achievement is possible, for example, when the terror bodies are too busy protecting their own lives instead of planning terror and carrying it out or when internal opinion turns against them and prevents them – directly or indirectly – from carrying out their intentions.

Defense measures which interdict terror and include the securing of possible targets can seriously handicap terror’s ability to carry out its intention, but only by attacking the terror organizations in their lairs and mobilization points before they set out to consummate their plans can one cause a decline in their operational ability.2 The implementation of a terror attack is a complicated process, involving the participation of many bodies: beginning with the preachers and recruiters and ending with those who press the trigger or the detonator switch on the explosive belts. Striking any one of these factors – as early as possible – yields not only an increase in the number of interdictions but also a reduction in the number of attempts by the terror organizations. Such a triumph, while it does not incorporate a crushing and rapid victory, still constitutes an achievement, and it should be defined as such.

While in the classic wars of maneuver, a military victory was measured, inter alia, by the number of casualties inflicted on the enemy in manpower and equipment, in the war on terror the IDF’s achievement was measured by criteria which are not clearly military, such as the degree of security tranquility. This tranquility finds expression in civilian areas as well, for example, in indices of economic growth.

A study of the strategy which was intended to subdue Israel, as authored and openly disseminated by the terror perpetrators, informs us that the bulk of their efforts, which are indeed heinous but are limited in comparison to a general war, are devoted towards crippling the morale of Israel’s citizens. Such a blow would constrict immigration, arrest tourism, cut foreign investment to a trickle, and cause capital flight abroad. All this would result in negative economic growth, mass despair, and emigration, until Israel disintegrates from within.

An examination of these indices in March 2002 demonstrates that some of these objectives were realized in practice, and the terror perpetrators were on the brink of attainment with regard to the others. Did this represent a professional failure of the military men who did not comprehend their mission and did not properly evaluate the situation, or was this a failure of the political echelon which refrained from using the army? It would be wise to investigate and understand this issue. But what is important is the result which is rooted in repeated historical lessons – that an army, if it acts properly, can prevent terror and win the war against it.

Operation Defensive Shield (April 2002)

The situation that prevailed in the West Bank after Operation “Defensive Shield” (April 2002) is an excellent example of how one can vanquish terror with military force – at least at the third level of victory, namely, to destroy the enemy’s capabilities through a continuous effort and without solving the conflict. Israel went to war after it counted 132 dead, all of them civilians, in the preceding month (meaning the equivalent of 1,800 deaths a year). In a continuous and uninterrupted effort since that campaign, Israel’s terror casualty rate declined to 11 civilians for all of 2006. This is the type of victory over terror that one can demand of the army.

Of course from the army’s standpoint, even 11 people murdered annually by terror constitutes an unacceptable number, and one must do the utmost to reduce it to zero, but there’s no doubt that even the current figure and the tranquility which affords prosperity to Israel constitutes a genuine failure for terror. It turns out that those who penned the slogan “let the IDF win” – a slogan employed by those who pressed for allowing the IDF to have military freedom of action at a time when its hands were tied – were correct. When they allowed the IDF to act, it actually did win.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that a decision on the battlefield does not reflect the entire picture. The story is told of the American officer who met a North Vietnamese general and told him: “You know, we examined all our battles in Vietnam and it turned out that we subdued the South Vietnamese guerrilla movement and we liquidated all the guerrilla forces that had penetrated from the North.” The North Vietnamese responded to him: “That is correct, but why is it relevant?”

An important truth is concealed in this response and is pertinent to relations between the political and military echelons. If the decision on the battlefield does not lead the political bodies to an understanding that the situation permits them to withstand the demands of the terror organizations, and they elect for one reason or another to compromise or surrender, withdraw or concede, then all the work invested by the military echelon will be in vain. In other words, it is possible that a victory over terror may not lead to an improved political situation. This is one area where classic warfare, on the model of the Second World War, differs from the type of warfare we are discussing. Therefore, the burden imposed on civilian decision-makers in this type of war is more onerous, and precisely because of this their directives to the military must be precise and detailed in order serve more clearly the political objective, which also must be clear, to the extent that we can expect clarity from the political echelon.

Nevertheless, the political echelon’s difficulty in exploiting a victory over terror cannot serve as an excuse for the military to abandon the quest for military victory.

Determination

The late Colonel Shmuel Nir (Samu), who served as divisional intelligence officer in Northern Command at the time I served as intelligence officer for the command, wrote an article which laid the basis for the concept of “attrition” instead of “victory.”3 Yet his argument contains a serious, fundamental flaw. Samu analyzes the components of power wielded by our antagonists in the conflict and determines, correctly, that we are not dealing only with physical power, but with the reciprocal relations between resources, capabilities, and determination. In his discussion of determination, he contends – without proving his argument – that “the principal advantage of the inferior side is in the determination component, which expresses itself in a national power of perseverance and an ability to absorb punishment in the face of foreseeable or possible losses and destruction.”

The facts show otherwise. It has never been proven that the terror organizations possess greater resilience than the community of democratic peoples; it has never been proven that the terror organizations are prepared to sacrifice more than their victims; and it has never been proven that the society from which terror emanates is prepared to absorb greater anticipated destruction than those fighting terror. It was bin Laden who proposed a cease-fire to the United States, rather than the United States to bin Laden. So who has greater resilience? Did not Israeli society demonstrate as much resilience as its enemies during the course of the terror war which took place between November 1947 and May 1948, in which Israel absorbed 1,200 dead, or in the war which began in September 2000 in which Israel sustained 1,400 killed? Since a state which is fighting terror generally employs greater resources and capabilities than the terror organization it is confronting, and since the state is not inferior to the terror organization in resilience, Samu’s argument regarding the advantage of terror in the general correlation of forces is refuted.

Samu also presents the idea that “victory is a matter of society’s cognizance.” Thus, it is argued that Israel did not depart Lebanon because the IDF was defeated in the fighting, but because the cognizance of Israeli society had shifted due to guerrilla pressure and the cost in blood which appeared excessive (in the last 17 months of Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon, Israel suffered 21 dead).

Success on the battlefield led to the destruction of Communist terror’s capability in Greece without any change in anyone’s cognizance. The same applies to the current situation in the West Bank. The current tranquility was achieved not because someone changed his cognition on the other side, but because the IDF and the General Security Service almost totally liquidated the terror organizations’ capacity for action. Quite a few surveys, as well as the Palestinian elections, point to the fact that nothing has changed in Palestinian cognizance, but the statistics demonstrate that terror has been greatly reduced there.

True, this is a third-level victory,” namely, the type that requires constant activity to preserve the achievement, and it is also true that sometimes the terror organizations manage to act and kill. Nonetheless, given the assumption that the IDF will continue to bring down the level of terror, it is clear that from the perspective of terror and its objective to undermine the Israeli way of life, it has been a total failure. It is possible that if Israel had not withdrawn from Gaza, thus allowing the terror organizations to present this as their victory, then the result of the war on terror would have been even clearer. The fact that Israel did not withdraw from Gaza under the pressure of terror did not change a thing. When we are dealing with cognizance and image, reality is not the determining factor. What matters is the way Israel’s actions are perceived by the Palestinians.

When Israel kills or arrests the terror perpetrators (and from a professional standpoint it is preferable to arrest), this is not a “victory of cognizance,” but a small portion of a long road to victory in practice, in a real physical sense. When the age of the terror operatives drops from the late 20s to the late teens, it appears that we are dealing with a “bottomless barrel,” while the truth is that this is a real, concrete achievement. The replacement generation is younger, with less experience than its predecessor, and it does not have the same ability to direct, recruit, and lead. This is compounded by a sense of persecution which stems from the arrest and liquidation of their predecessors and from the clear awareness that their lives are similarly at risk and it is only a matter of time until they become a target. The new generation is also more cautious, is preoccupied with escape, and hence produces less terror and definitely less qualitative and dangerous terror.

The adoption of these two mistaken assumptions – that terror is more determined and resilient than democratic states, and that victory is always a matter of cognizance rather than the outcome of physical and coercive measures – induced many to believe that there is no military way to contend with terror in order to defeat it.

The confusion could have been prevented, had it been understood that no one expects a military body to solve an ideological conflict, and even military “victory” signifies various levels of achievement, when the first requirement of victory is to check terror in a physical manner and not to alter the enemy’s cognizance.

An Army Can Prevent Terror from Implementing Its Plans

We may then conclude that one can essentially vanquish terror, even if this is a victory that only prevents terror from successfully implementing its plans, while it does not influence its intentions. Victory of this type requires constant and determined effort from the moment that it is attained, for if not, conditions will revert to their former sorry state as soon as the terror organizations deem themselves strong enough. This is precisely the principle of a “hudna“: when the terror organizations are under pressure, they seek a cease-fire, and they violate it when the violation is worthwhile for them, when the military pressure slackens and they feel themselves strong.

It would therefore appear that an evaluation of the war on terror must address the following questions:

  • What is the level of victory over terror which can be obtained under conditions of the theater – total victory, interim cessation of terror, or regular suppression – and how can one improve the level of victory over time?
  • What are the prior and necessary conditions for the army so that it can attain each level of victory?
  • How should the army organize itself together with other bodies that assist the war on terror in order to create the prior conditions and to realize the potential for victory in practice?

It is clear that such a discussion is relevant only if one embraces the contention that the democratic state is essentially capable of subduing the terror which menaces it.

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Notes

* A version of this article originally appeared in Hebrew in Maarachot, Journal of the Israel Defense Forces.

1. Yaakov Amidror, “The Military Strike as a Cognitive Paradigm of Effects,” Maarachot 403-404, December 2005.

2. This is not a novel idea. See the chapter dealing with fighting irregular forces which appears in the book Battle Doctrine, Vol. II.

3. Colonel Shmuel Nir (Samu), “The Nature of Limited Conflict,” in Hagai Golan and Shaul Shai (ed.), “The Limited Conflict,” Maarachot, 2004.

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Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Program Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is former commander of the IDF’s National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College. He is also the former head of the IDF’s research and assessment division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. In addition, he served as the military secretary of the Minister of Defense.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is a former Israeli national security advisor. He formerly served as director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is former commander of the IDF's National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College and former head of the IDF's Research and Assessment Division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. In addition, he served as the military secretary of the defense minister.