Will an IDF Withdrawal from the West Bank Mean a Safe Haven for Extremist Groups?

, August 22, 2010

Vol. 10, No. 8     August 22, 2010

  • To stand any real chance of success, every insurgent or terrorist movement needs a safe haven to operate from. Israel has had more than a flavor of what it can mean to leave hostile groups in control of lands adjacent to its own borders in southern Lebanon and in Gaza. Any similar move to totally cede control to the Palestinians of the West Bank or a part of Jerusalem would carry immense risk.
  • Some might argue that a modern high-tech state can monitor hostile activities outside its borders. But surveillance and intelligence collection against a deeply embedded, secretive, extremist network operating within a dense civilian population is the most difficult target, and no national intelligence organization can be confident that it will have a high success rate against such a target.
  • It has been suggested that an international force, perhaps a NATO force, should replace the IDF presence in the West Bank, an idea that raises a number of very serious questions. Where are the NATO troops going to come from and how long are they going to stay? Some nations are simply not prepared to put their troops into undue danger.
  • What would happen to those who were prepared to take part in such a force when the going got tough, as it inevitably would? Think of Lebanon in 1983 when suicide bomb attacks killed 300 troops and led to the withdrawal of the French and American peacekeeping forces, or al-Qaeda’s attack in Madrid which led to the withdrawal of Spanish forces from the Iraq campaign. Just how sure could we be that the electorates in contributing countries would allow their militaries to remain deployed in the West Bank under these kinds of pressures.
  • To what extent would a NATO mission get in the way of a vital Israeli effort to protect their own people? Finally, a failed NATO mission and a West Bank under extremist control, flourishing under a security vacuum there, would encourage and strengthen violent jihadists everywhere in the world.

The Implications for Asymmetrical Activity by Extremist Groups

To stand any real chance of success, every insurgent or terrorist movement needs a safe haven to operate from – one that is outside the control of the state being targeted and preferably in a land that is free from interference by the target state or its allies, whether due to geography, the protection of a friendly regime, or operating within a failed state. The Vietnam conflict was a classic example of the use of a safe haven. More recently, in the Iraq campaign, Sunni extremists had a safe haven in Syria which was their main logistic support base and a pipeline for suicide bombers flowing into Iraq. They also used extensive support networks in Iran, which also provided a safe haven for Shi’ite insurgents attacking coalition forces, as well as through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah, which provided training, organization, munitions, and direction.

Today the Afghan Taliban’s safe haven and support base is in Pakistan, although the second largest extremist group engaged in Afghanistan, Hizb-i-Islami, has its main base in Iran itself. In March, General Petraeus, the Head of U.S. Central Command, in testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, revealed that Tehran is letting al-Qaeda leaders travel freely between Pakistan and Afghanistan, effectively using Iranian territory as a safe haven, while permitting them also to hold meetings in Iran to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. and other Western targets.

Israel has had more than a flavor of what it can mean to leave hostile groups in control of lands adjacent to its own borders in southern Lebanon and in Gaza. Any similar move to totally cede control to the Palestinians of the West Bank or a part of Jerusalem may have considerable attraction for any peace process, and that is certainly the view of many in the international community. But both prospects would carry immense risk from the perspective of asymmetrical activities against Israel.

Some might argue that a modern high-tech state can monitor hostile activities outside its borders. Yet we’ve seen many failures of intelligence in relation to offensive activities by conventional forces and war plans by nation-states which are generally relatively easy to identify and monitor. But surveillance and intelligence collection against a deeply embedded, secretive, extremist network operating within a dense civilian population is the most difficult target, and no national intelligence organization can be confident that it will have a high success rate against such a target.

Despite many spectacular successes, including the killing in Pakistan of al-Qaeda’s number three, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the unrivalled technological supremacy of the U.S. military has failed to effectively dent the Taliban’s ability to smuggle munitions and infiltrate large groups of fighters across the Afghan border. I do not for a moment underestimate the difficulties this entails. Jordan’s support or effectiveness in countering extremist activity directed at Israel from the West Bank could not be counted upon, and extremists would also seek to destabilize Jordan, an important stepping stone to the destruction of Israel.

We can look again at Pakistan and Afghanistan to get an insight here. NATO puts in a significant effort to coordinate cross-border security measures with the government of Pakistan. Some of this is successful some of the time. Some elements of the Pakistan government have different agendas, supporting the Taliban when it suits them or at least turning a blind eye, but Pakistan itself is suffering a very serious, dangerous, and worsening insurgency from its own Taliban. Despite the contrary views of some, its own Taliban, closely linked to the Afghanistan Taliban, is intent on bringing down Pakistan’s government, a goal shared by al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, and despite efforts on both sides of the border, insurgents operate with relative freedom. The importance of safe havens to extremists is well understood by the Pakistan military. One of their greatest fears is that NATO forces will withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan, leaving a vacuum from which their own insurgency could be supported and strengthened. That, of course, leaves a prospect of a nuclear-armed state falling into the hands of extremists.

Questions Surrounding a Prospective NATO Peacekeeping Deployment

It has been suggested that an international force, perhaps a NATO force should replace the IDF presence in the West Bank. While I would not exclude that idea in principle, it raises a number of very serious questions. First of all, where are the NATO troops going to come from and how long are they going to stay? Let us not forget the difficulties that NATO has had for years and still has in mustering forces for the war in Afghanistan – and this is for a campaign that is NATO’s declared main effort and its only real, current, live operation. Many of the troops that are there are restricted by significant national caveats, including restricting deployments to the safest areas. Some nations are simply not prepared to put their troops into undue danger. Unfortunately, undue danger goes hand in glove with war and with the toughest peacekeeping operations, and the West Bank would fall clearly into that category. Some NATO nations can’t operate after dark and they leave the insurgents to control the night, with all the implications that this has.

There is a significant risk that in trying to develop and maintain good relations with all parties, the peacekeepers would instead become the enemy of both sides. Potential contributors to the international forces would know that. What would happen to those who were prepared to take part when the going got tough, as it inevitably would? Think of Lebanon in 1983 when suicide bomb attacks killed 300 troops and led to the withdrawal of the French and American peacekeeping forces. An extremist with global reach will not have forgotten al-Qaeda’s attack in Madrid twenty years later which led to the withdrawal of Spanish forces from the Iraq campaign. And let us not for a moment assume that sinister, yet powerful, hands would not turn their attention onto the peacekeeping forces in the West Bank, especially if they showed signs of succeeding in their mission to bring lasting peace into the region. Iran has a track record of stiffening the resolve of insurgent groups that show any sign of faltering in their aggression against Israel, and a track record of attacking Western forces using their proxies.

Just how sure could we be that the electorates in contributing countries would allow their militaries to remain deployed in the West Bank under these kinds of pressures, and how effective would NATO be as a peacekeeping force in the demanding circumstances that we are considering? The only previous success that NATO is able to claim in this field, and it is by no means uncontroversial, was in Kosovo, which also in practice was a far less complex situation.

NATO is, of course, not peacekeeping in Afghanistan, but we can get some insight from its activities there. I’ve already mentioned the national caveats. Similar difficulties apply to differing national rules of engagement and tactical procedures, including a very wide variety of constraints on air support. Would a NATO mission be ready and able to take on insurgents, and if not, to what extent would they then get in the way of a vital Israeli effort to do so to protect their own people?

After seven years in Afghanistan, how effectively has NATO taken control of the insurgency there? In the six-month period up to March 2010 the number of attacks against NATO forces increased by over 80 percent over the same period in the previous year, and in the same time frame, attacks on the civilian population in Afghanistan were up by over 70 percent. And how assiduous has NATO been in its civilian reconstruction and governance efforts, a critical element of its role in Afghanistan? Reconstruction has been notable by its relative inability to gain traction and provide essential depth for the military element of the counter-insurgency campaign.

In many ways peacekeeping is far tougher and more challenging than fighting as combatants. It is one thing to act robustly against people that are attacking you and your comrades. It is quite another to put your troops’ lives on the line when it is not them but others who are in danger. Dutch forces have fought gallantly and effectively in Afghanistan. They’ve been brave and they’ve taken many casualties, but Srebrenica cannot be forgotten. More than 8,000 civilians were massacred there in 1995 under the eyes of Dutch UN peacekeepers.

To conclude, I would neither exclude the possibility of an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank nor their replacement with a NATO force, but before either can be seriously contemplated there are some fundamental questions to be resolved. These issues are critical to NATO, the West as a whole, and the entire Middle East because a failed NATO mission and a West Bank under extremist control, flourishing under a security vacuum there, would encourage and strengthen violent jihadists everywhere in the world.

 

*    *    *

 

Col. Richard Kemp is former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at a conference on “Israel’s Critical Security Needs for a Viable Peace,” held in Jerusalem on June 2, 2010.

About Col. Richard Kemp

Col. Richard Kemp is former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan.