Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Busy week

Apologies for the lack of posts. It's been a busy last few days for us here at Fogg of War (unrelated to the blog though, unfortunately). Hopefully things will pick up again by the end of the week!

Also, we're hoping to implement some juicy new features for the site. I'm thinking that it is time for some upgrades. Therefore: do you, dear reader, have any suggestions? Don't like something? Would you like to see posts on a specific topic? Hate everything and everyone at the FoW? Let us know. Feedback is always welcome, post a comment and let us know!

Hope you're all having a great week.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama's Orders in Pakistan Vindicate Bush

There has been much speculation in the past few years over seemingly foolish strategy in Pakistan against the Taliban by the Bush Regime. Alas, I have been a rather tough critic myself of a strategy that seemed at its core designed to irritate our alleged allies in the war on the Taliban.

US missiles flung into Pakistani territory do indeed kill Talibani soldiers, but it is highly unclear just how much of a battlefield tactical effect they might have. It seemed rather obvious to we political scientists that it was a long-term strategic blunder. Ultimately, cooperation by the Pakistanis would have been much more helpful (for, indeed, ground assaults by local troops supported by US Intelligence, airpower, and special forces was just how we drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan).

But Obama's decision to so quickly continue with the missile strikes is a bit of a shock to at least myself. This new President is one that promised a completely different approach--in particular, one that was much more friendly to our allies, and even to those that don't like us (like Iran). Obama's order of a missile strike in Pakistan that killed about 20 (hopefully Taliban) seems to be a direct contradiction of that.

This contradiction can be resolved one of a few ways, some of which are more plausible than others:
1) Obama's foreign policy will be just like Bush's, for all the bad reasons we believed Bush's was bad.
Unlikely. Even Obama can't get away with calling for change and then doing the exact same thing for four straight years. Additionally, the closing of Guantanamo (despite it truly making lives in the US Justice Department painful) shows a strong commitment to national image abroad.
2) Firing missiles into Pakistan is actually so overwhelmingly important for the battlefield that we are willing to pay the price diplomatically.
Possible, though it doesn't really seem to have kept the Taliban in check so far. Might be keeping them worried/hidden/suppressed, which would in particular be helpful if there were ground forces converging, which brings me to...
3) All of this is secretly coordinated with a somewhat-cooperative (yet still questionably competent) Pakistani Army.
Given both that airstrikes are not terribly effective in the absence of infantry, and that the President was able to decisively choose to attack after only two days in office, he likely has the cooperation from relatively authoritative persons in Pakistan, probably in the army. I will note, as well, the reluctance of the Pakistani government to make much of a fuss, even if they cannot openly admit cooperation.

If said cooperation is occurring, then the Pakistanis are likely planning a relatively major crackdown in the region. Why it didn't happen during the Bush regime is a bit of a wildcard in this interpretation, to be honest, but not one without some room for interpretation. The Pakistanis certainly could not afford to show any signs of working with Mr. Bush, but the government may be waiting to see how the wind blows in its country for Mr. Obama. Obama is bringing serious non-military aid to Pakistan soon, and it may make the environment ripe enough for open coordination with the Americans. For the meantime, Mr. Obama has free reign to soften the Talibani leadership a bit. And so he will.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ever Wanted to Go to Cuba?

I know I do. And some time in the next 8 years, it might happen.

The US has had a long (and somewhat inexplicable) embargo of doing anything with Cuba, including talking to their leadership, because they're Communists. I should note that we have a free trade agreement with one Communist country (Vietnam) and we at least have a relatively healthy relationship with another big one (China), but for some reason, we just can't seem to get past the fact that we don't like Castro much.

Don't You Want to Be Here?


Obama's new take on diplomacy is likely to mean a more open mind towards states we're currently not talking to--and Mr. Castro has expressed approval for Mr. Obama already. Some people have argued to me that we are being "soft" on Communism if we open up to Cuba, but this elicits a few responses. First, we are not punishing the Cubans much by not having diplomatic relations with them. The trade embargo hurts, but it sure hasn't convinced them yet to decide on Capitalism, and it's unlikely to do so in the future--therefore, it's mostly wasted effort. Second, we really shouldn't care that much if they call themselves Communists. No, they don't have elections, but (again) nor does China. Nixon and Kissinger recognized and normalized with China because they were able to face reality, not because our strategy of recognizing Chiang had suddenly worked. As it turned out then (and is even more true now), such a coming-to-grips with reality did not hurt the American image, and did not falter our deterrent reputation, but instead enhanced our ability to deal with the Communists and take advantage of splits in their camp.

Cuba isn't doing anything to actively hurt our country. Now, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to embrace the Cubans into the American sphere as friends, rather than let them fall to the resurgent Russians (remember how well that worked the first time?). Opening trade with Cuba and flooding them with American dollars will certainly be an incentive that the Russians cannot provide. And heck, I'd really love to visit some of those beaches and smoke some of those cigars.

So, Mr. President, if you are reading this blog, I ask you to do two things. First, leave a comment, so I can brag. Then second, lift the embargo on Cuba and open up diplomatic relations. It's really a good idea.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Considering Bush's Legacy

A thought-provoking article from his main speechwriter.

Israeli Timing Holds True

While Mr. Obama was busy moving his family and belongings to Pennsylvania Avenue, Israel abruptly and unilaterally declared a ceasefire in Gaza. The Gazans (undeniably more than simply Hamas), a few hours later, declared one as well. The ceasefire is holding, somewhat surprisingly. Hamas has decided that they don't want to risk another invasion (yet), and no rockets are flying. Even a day without rockets is a huge symbolic victory for Israel.

Israel's unilateral ceasefire makes two points. The first is that the Israelis do not want a lingering war when Mr. Obama takes office. Such a decision is strategically calculated to prevent Mr. Obama from having to deal with an Israeli war (under the pressure of his allies to stop the Israelis) on day one; certainly, Israel wants to be as friendly with the new American president as possible. The second point is that the Israelis do not want to be bound by the terms of an internationally-brokered peace deal: they want to be able to move into Gaza unbound if the rocket fire continues.

But for now, signs point to Hamas being beaten up enough that it has no intentions of provoking the Israelis yet. It is likely waiting to see if it can rebuild and rearm itself over the next few years of quiet to be ready to weather another Israeli storm.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Calculated Madness


The New York Times has a fine article about the "calculated madness" of the Israeli attack, and its analogy in the Hamas circle. But I'm not going to re-hash that.

I intend to consider the validity of Israel's conclusions on its war. Israel took down a lot of Hamas infrastructure--and because Hamas is so ubiquitous in Gaza (it is pretty much everything), Israel took down many houses, schools, Mosques, etc. As far as I can tell, nothing hit wasn't either A) a legitimate Hamas target, or B) a complete mistake, but in war, intent is a very small part of the story.

Israel believes that it has taught them a lesson, as the Chinese are fond of saying in their wars. It strolled in, delivered a beating, and left. It wasn't going to destroy all of the rocket sites. It wasn't going to take down Hamas, and alas, it certainly didn't. This war was meant to show Hamas and its supporters that throwing rockets at Israel wasn't worth the risk of massive retaliation. Did that work? Indeed, can that work?

Israel's hope is that the sup;porters of Hamas, while angry at Israel, will question the wisdom of voting for Hamas. This is somewhat likely, but they may also be purple-blooded. After the Sept. 11 attacks in the US, Americans did not question their foreign policy, except perhaps in concluding that they were being too shy, too meek, too peaceful, and too generous (in conflict with pretty much the rest of the world). While the analogy between the 9/11 attacks and the Israeli war is pretty weak, it makes a strong point: can beating on people make them more calm and peaceful? The Blitz of London, the 9/11 attacks, the bombings of North Korea, the Rape of Nanking, they all say otherwise. But they were all primarily anti-civilian attacks. Can Israel make a clearer message by having almost exclusively attacked Hamas-related targets?

Perhaps. Israel has to make two messages clear: 1) Hamas got Gaza into this mess by refusing to stop launching rockets, and 2) that the Israelis were genuinely trying to avoid civilian casualties. The second will not make Gazans less angry at the Israelis for their friends and family dying from shell fire, but it will allow point #1 to have more salience. And that is the important part--if Gazans can say, "Hamas' irresponsibility is why the Israelis attacked" (whether or not it was deserved, etc), then they will back down.

A good example of this is Europe. Russia has recently been, for lack of a better term, insufferable and hyperaggressive. They have gone after Ukraine (with gas) and Georgia (with tanks) for minor provocations. But even though the Russian response was far out of line (and resembling that of a child's temper tantrum), the European Union has questioned the wisdom of continuing to agitate the Russians--particularly, it has questioned a continued policy of trying to subsume Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Indeed, while Russia's actions have been largely unjust (particularly in Georgia), Europe has taken the posture that Russia is an entity whose disposition and behavior are both A) unlikely to change soon through any measures, and B) rational, even if unfair and disproportionate. And so the Europeans have acted just as the Russians have. So might the Gazans, if the Israelis can impart the same sense of causal linkage between the rockets and Israel's attack (as Russia did between Georgia's shelling of South Ossetia and its own assault). If that link can become salient and vivid for Gazans, then they will either pressure Hamas to change into a more reserved military entity, or they will vote them out. Either, to some extent, is a victory for Israel. But now that the 3-week assault is over, the propaganda war will only intensify.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

If Mexico Failed

It's possible that Iran, or al-Qaeda, or Russia, any of them, are the biggest threat to the US in the next 8 years. That, my friends, is a luxury. That our greatest threats are all half a world away, that the worst consequence of defense failures for our civilian population was as single attack in an almost-70-year period is spectacular. We can spend all of our time worrying about whether Iran is funding a militia group with an effective operating radius of 100 miles.

That is, of course, as long as these 3 countries are our biggest threats. They might not be. I allude so cleverly, of course, to Mexico.

"Mexico?" you ask. "I vacationed there once. You can only drink bottled water, but how's that so bad?" So thought I once, as well.

I also maintained this opinion of Mexico as a rather poor but otherwise relatively inoffensive place over the past 8 years despite A) about half of the US becoming fixated on keeping Mexicans out of Texas, and B) increasingly frequent reports on America's Most Wanted (which, I admit, I watch at home during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks) about crazy Mexican drug cartels abducting/killing Texans.

But the US Government has caught on. The Department of Defense is starting to seriously worry that the drug cartels could take down the Mexican Government.

Is it time to be terrified? Probably not. But the cartels have become extremely powerful, and momentum is on their side. For many local police, they must either accept bribes or be killed at night--"silver or lead," as it's called. Many police are still trying to crack down, and big fights are happening--generally between drug gangers and cops from calmer parts of the country. But the corruption runs pretty high, and at some point, impunity starts to take over: officials can stop pretending that they're part of the forces of order. It hasn't happened yet, but it might.

When that happens, Mexico is already a failed state. But other similarly catastrophic events could happen in this drug war: if Mexican leadership is assassinated, the rough and hectic transition period could be so ineffectual that the government would "lose its hold" of the country (which I have found in my studies to be a very elusive concept to operationalize in a country: the place to start looking is the Fund For Peace's Failed States Index). The drug war could get so bloody and miserable that people start to displace to avoid it--and the economy crashes. Any of these things could occur.

So what would happen if the Mexican state failed? For the US, a few pretty bad things. First and most obviously, there would be a huge rush of refugees to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Oh, and given a pesky treaty on refugees that the US signed back in the 1950's, it would be obligated under international human rights law to take all these refugees in (particularly if the UN declares a certain level of crisis in the country to be present, which happens in the General Assembly, leaving the US veto useless). The US would either have to snub international human rights law in a very big way (something that would be very costly for the US' reputation, as well as an act that would undermine the world order that the US worked so hard to create for the past century), or take them in and deal. And then, the US would have to choose between shouldering this obligation itself (which would be financially ~impossible given current government debt) or swallow its pride and knock its status in the world by accepting large humanitarian aid from Western Europe (not that the Western Europeans would care much beyond jockeying and cultural competitiveness, but the Russians and Iranians would likely become quite bolstered).

The other problem, of course, would be law enforcement. The US would have to turn its southern border into a war zone, and send huge numbers of (unavailable) troops to provide law enforcement in the region and try desperately to keep the border watched and safe through the rush of refugees.

Can this be prevented? Almost certainly, but it will take some smarts. It's something Mr. Obama will have to put on his plate, right next to Gaza, the financial crisis, Iran, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and all the other plans he hopes to put through. US demand is a big contributor to this drug drade. Curtailing demand would help, but the only serious way to do that would be to legalize the production of drugs inside the US, reducing the need for foreign supplies (I say this due to overwhelming evidence that the War on Drugs isn't really going anywhere). Another way to do it would be to build a Berlin-Wall-esque station at the border to make sure the drug supply and demand are permanently separated, despite the "pressure" for goods to flow (think of trying to keep a vacuum separated from a high-pressure vessel with a membrane between the two). It seems unlikely that either solution is going to look attractive.

It's a question for which I don't think there is a clear answer. Supporting the Mexcian government with US aid/intelligence/training is likely to help some. It is certainly the cheap and low-effort solution, but it's unclear as to whether it would be enough.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Thank You and a Farewell

From the Department of Defense:

"The Department of Defense announced today the death of a Marine who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Lance Cpl. Daniel R. Bennett, 23, of Clifton, Va., died Jan. 11 as a result of a non-hostile incident in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C."


LCPL Bennett was a friend of the family, a gentleman, and a dedicated defender of the liberty of his fellow Americans. He is one of a very select few men and women of the United States with the courage to put himself in harms' way for our safety and freedom. To Dan, to the exceptional men and women of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and to all those that chose to wear the uniforms of the US Military, thank you.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Americans Stand by Israel

For any Israelis that worried about the United States' stance on Israel with the new Obama administration, worry no more: While the Obama administration is likely to push for ceasefires and diplomatic talks as much as it can, Mr. Obama will continue the US policy of defending Israel's sovereignty, safety, and actions. Allow me to elaborate.

Many have somehow worried that Obama's quiet stance on Gaza was a sign that he harbors quiet anti-Israeli tendencies. Not so, I am rather sure. More likely, Obama's quietness allows him to appear neutral coming into the negotiations, which will assist the Israelis more than anyone. The Israelis made sure to rush into this war so that they would not immediately force Mr. Obama into a difficult spot with them, and Mr. Obama has graciously responded by staying out of it for now. it was a wonderful piece of diplomacy, and something that quietly reaffirms Obama's commitment to working with Israel into the future.

The House passed a bill today affirming "Israel's right to defend itself" 395-5 (with a few abstentions, it seems)--it was sponsored by Nancy Pelosi, House majority leader. Big deal? Yes. The House, including a vast bipartisan majority and its Democratic leadership--is behind Israel, and willing to go out on a branch for it.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid also supports Israel's action in Gaza, saying (I paraphrase, sorry): "Hamas has to go." He sponsored a resolution with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supporting Israel's action, and it passed unanimously. That's right, unanimously.

So the new wave of American politicians are firmly and undeniably in the Israel camp. The tactics might be different, but the support isn't. Even if Obama does harbor some anti-Israeli-policy sentiment (which I really can't say either way, I just hear a lot of people complain about it), he certainly has no room to try to do anything about it--his party is firmly a pro-Israel party for at least the next fair while. This will be significant for the Israeli elections coming soon: American approval of the current party's action (Kadima) should raise confidence that they should keep the same horse in the race--I expect full well that Kadima is going to run away with this election and have a new mandate among the Israeli electorate.

A Brief Iraq Update

Maverick that I am, I've decided to bring you all an update on a war that nobody else is really updating for you: Iraq.

It'll be just a brief overview: I've got a lot to do for work. And I'll tell you more about work later (it is very awesome).

Anyway, there's not a whole lot to tell that isn't relatively obvious by the lack of news in the country. Deaths continue a relatively steady (but slow) decline. In December, Coalition deaths totaled 17, the third-lowest month yet (the lowest being 13 deaths). Deaths of Iraqis (related to the war) were 320, higher only than August and November of 2008 (311 and 317, respectively). This month is looking to be the most peaceful yet, with only 2 Coalition deaths do date, and 119 civilian deaths, though a number of events may attract terror attacks. A whopping four provinces are scheduled to be handed over in the next 2 weeks, as detailed in a map that I have modified below:

Iraqi Government Provincial Control, Updated for Jan 2009 (US DoD)

If these handovers go smoothly (which, to be honest, they do most of the time), then deaths should stay down. Provincial elections are on January 31st for all but four provinces, and these are likely to be the target of attacks (though solid security may make this an opportunity to capture militants). After the handover, the Iraqis are in charge everywhere but Baghdad, and US deaths will drop by even more. US costs should drop, too (particularly given incoming president Obama's political need to balance some sliver of spending discipline and bailing-out--he will not be spendthrift on this war).

Iraq's Kurd problem remains, but is resolvable--especially once the last four provinces hold their elections. The more the US can put its power into negotiating between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, the more likely it is that an agreement can be forged.

Anyway, that's really it. In short, things are mopping up nicely in Iraq, for the moment, and they show no particular signs of falling apart.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Gaza Rockets

So really, the big deal in this seemingly unending conflict between Israel and Hamas, the weapon of choice for igniting the fire of war again and again, is the Qassam Rocket.

You may have been wondering what the deal is with these rockets, because either the Israeli people are actually all invincible from birth, or these rockets are really not that great.

Today, we'll have a closer look at what these rockets actually look like, how they work (or don't work), and why they're being used.

To your right you should see an image of the regular Qassam Rocket. Hamas paramilitary fighters are conveniently located next to each rocket to give you a sense of scale.

There are 3 broad types of Qassam Rockets (QR) varying in length from 2 ft 7 inches - 6 ft 7 inches (Just about the height of a regular doorway).
The body of the QR is a cylinder of regular grade steel, with guide vanes placed at the bottom for guidance. The nosecone and upper section are packed with as much explosives (TNT) as possible. The rocket motor is a solid fuel type using a mixture of sugar and fertilizer for fuel.

Below is a video of the QR in action (catchy music included!). Skip ahead to the 2:00 min mark to see construction process. You can see the rocket motor being installed, the sections being welded together and the solid fuel mixture being cast (that bit where they pour the orange liquid into a mould).
During the video keep an eye out for the corkscrew rocket contrails.



So, we can see that these rockets work because they're so incredibly simple. These rockets operate using the exact same principle as those model rockets you played with as a kid. The only difference is that your rocket probably didn't have an explosive payload. All you need to make these rockets yourself is some stock steel and a welding machine. Fertilizer and sugar can be picked up at your local hardware store and chemist.

But let's face it. These rockets just...suck.
An image of a QR attack on a house in Sderot.
Yup, that is in fact a butane/gas tank surrounded by flammable material, all very much un-exploded.

The Gaza rocket attacks started in 2001. The first Israeli fatality was in March 2007 . That's a pretty poor track record. The reason for this continued poor performance is twofold: 1) Construction techniques. There's only so much targeting you can do with an unguided missile. The most important part is lining up the guide vanes. Remember those corkscrew contrails I was talking about? When you see those, you know the guy who put the rocket together did a botch up job. Corkscrew's means the rocket is wasting energy in spinning around instead of using the energy to go further which means less range. It also means you can't aim the thing worth a damn, because where you point it is not necessarily where it is going to go.
2) It is not meant to inflict large amounts of damage. It's meant to terrorize people, and it is working. The people of Sderot (the primary target for these attacks) must hate those things with a passion.

Summary: The Qassam rockets are extremely easy to manufacture, require very little technical skill to operate and are largely ineffective in terms of physical destructive potential. Poor manufacturing technique further inhibits the ability of this rocket to be a real threat to a militarized nation such as Israel. The rockets are being used to terrorize the populace and to provoke a response out of the enemy government, which can later on be pointed to as further "proof" that the attacking nation is in fact the victim of an overzealous and aggressive neighbour. Underhanded, yet apparently effective, tactics.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Will Israel Succeed in Gaza?

Thus far, it seems that Israeli tactics are proving to be fairly effective.

Here are some reasons for why they might actually succeed in their objectives:
  • Minimal Israeli casualties: 7 by the latest count (report here)
  • At least some Palestinians are starting to realize that poking the proverbial dragon with a pointy stick, will in fact end badly. Maybe the traditional insurgent/terrorist tactic of 1) Using the civilian population as a meat shield and 2) Blaming destruction of said meat shield on the enemy, has finally started to backfire on Hamas. There might be a trend of falling popularity. There are some vague western media reports in support of the theory but counter examples are just as easy to find (as well as the bizarre...).
  • Isreal is pretty damn good at what they do:

When the dust finally settles and reporters are given more freedom to enter the Gaza strip, maybe then we'll have a better idea of where Hamas ranks popularity wise with the Palestinians and whether Israel really did what they wanted to do: stop the rocket attacks.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Israel's Confidence is High

Israel is starting to hint that they have full intent to take down Hamas with this war in Gaza (though this has been pretty obvious for a few days now). Their confidence that they can do so is surprisingly high, as well--Israeli officials are calling Hamas "crippled" in a few ways: its physical governance infrastructure is ruined (parliament building, police buildings, etc), its leadership is dead or in hiding (having abandoned its population), and its popularity is going to drop.

Though the popularity of Hamas is currently rather high, the Israelis think it will go down significantly in the next few weeks as Palestinians wonder whether a militant anti-Israel stance is one that is going to serve them well in the future. In particular, if Hamas is unable to provide governance, order, medical supplies, etc after the war ends, then their support will erode. Pre-war, Fatah already had an edge in Gaza polls. When the Palestinians have elections, probably in April 2009, Fatah will probably have quite the edge, even in Gaza. And if it does, and if Kadima can hold on in Israel, then the whole situation in Palestine looks a lot different. Israel will probably do what it can to enforce Fatah's right to govern in Gaza Strip, and help clean the strip up before working on serious two-state talks.

Such confidence is strange, coming from an Israel that lost a 2006 war in Lebanon due to overconfidence and poorly-defined campaign goals. Israel had been showing serious conservatism in its war goals early on: the air campaign was aimed at reducing rocket attacks, not even eliminating them. While Israel is not saying that they have changed their goals to the toppling of Hamas, they are certainly saying that it's likely that they will, and that they're quite happy for it. This means one of two things:

1) Israel's government did not learn a lesson from its tough defeat, even though I was able to graft that lesson from my seat in Cambridge, or,

2) Israel is actually well and truly crushing Hamas' governance and combat capabilities.

Occam's Razor says it's probably the latter.

Despite confidence, Israel remains conservative. They have not given in to goading and luring on the part of Hamas to enter Gaza City or other urban areas for street fighting. They have kept their total military casualties to one, suffered on the first night of entry. Israel's targets have been picked with deliberate caution, as well: Palestinian medical authorities have reported only 16 children dead, despite a strong incentive to over-report. Hamas has claimed that half of the over-500 killed in Gaza are civilians, but there is a strong incentive to over-report here, as well: Hamas loses face by reporting its own fighters killed, and gains support by claiming that Israel has killed civilians. Given how informally one can join the Hamas paramilitary, it will be impossible for these figures to ever be confirmed beyond academic estimates.

So things seem to be going well for Israel so far. They have a lot of work to do, and in particular, Israel must keep up strong diplomacy with Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, in order to keep its free military reign in Gaza. But such support should have wavered days ago if it was going to. Israel appears to have a serious shot at crippling Hamas for good and, despite the cries of many protesters to the contrary, contribute to long-term peace in the Middle East.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Analysing Israel's Gaza Tactics

After a day of war, Israel stand at one dead and about 40 wounded. They say they have killed "dozens" of Hamas militants, but they are struggling with their opposition using civilians as human shields in the fighting.

Let me first digress by expressing my own personal sympathies for Israel's difficult position. After returning full control of the Gaza strip to Palestine, Hamas used a civil war to wrest power, and has been using it as a safe haven to accumulate rockets from Iran and other sources to launch into Israel constantly, even during a six-month ceasefire in which Israel was relatively disciplined. Israel provided the majority of Gaza's fuel, food, electricity, and medical aid at no cost--despite access to the Mediterranean and Egypt, Gaza's Hamas leadership has held Gaza's economy back--gross mismanagement and excessive, corrupt government bureaucracy have made sure that Gaza's market has not spun up at all. Hamas hands out aid received by Israel, and takes credit--keeping its popularity high among its many poor and jobless. Hamas seems to take very little flak from its own people for storing weapons in Mosques and orphanages, or by using civilian human shields as they fight Israelis. The Arab world is starting to flare up in protest, and otherwise-moderate Arab governments have to condemn Israel's invasion to halt rocket fire--after relatively patient and persistent warnings to stop, offers to negotiate, and months of restraint--as a "war crime." Luckily for the Israelis, Egypt continues to stand by them (to what extent they can), and the Arab League is unable to spin up the momentum to actually meet over the crisis. The US will block any UN resolutions to officially condemn Israel in any way. Even US Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has said that a ceasefire is impossible until Hamas offers to halt rocket fire. So even if this war lasts for a few weeks, the US will not be switching teams on a dime.

So Israel is now elbow-deep in this problem--what have they actually done? According to relatively scattered reports, Israel has already cut to the Mediterranean and has surrounded Gaza City and other urban centers, as far south as Netzarim, but the Israeli Army has been disciplined enough to avoid entering any major urban areas, where the Hamas militants likely have a great advantage (with huge numbers of civilians that the Israelis have to worry about, potential booby traps, and other "home turf" advantages like knowledge of the terrain, friendly homes, etc). A map I put together below should make it a bit more clear where the Israelis have gone.
Approximate Israeli Movement and Positions (Click for Larger)

Their staging ground was Sderot, on the northeast corner of Gaza. From there, Israel broke in during the night and cut power to most of the northern half of the strip, taking advantage of night fighting technology to strike their initial blow (and most of their advances in the last day). The Israelis are likely to continue using night to press their primary assaults in search of rockets, launch pads, and Hamas leadership. Note that with Gaza City surrounded (and certainly extremely strict policies for anyone escaping), Hamas leadership isn't going anywhere soon (for the Israelis control Gaza waters, as well). Special forces have an opportunity to use what intelligence that Mossad has gathered to take them down in the capital city if they weren't smart enough to get out early.

At this point, Israel looks like it is going to focus on a search-and-destroy mission in the north, and then perhaps move south to mop up militants that got out--it is unlikely to spread its 3 brigades so thin as to take the entire strip at once. Israel also has troops ready in Jerusalem and near Lebanon in case West Bank Palestinians or Lebanese Hezbollah militants try anything tricky to help out their brothers-in-arms.

So the easy part is over, with few casualties for the Israelis, but the hard part--search-and-destroy--is just beginning. The success of the rest of this mission will depend on Israeli tactical intelligence abilities more than brilliant ground war operational capabilities. Israeli unit tactical training will face a test, as well.

But this mission really has more substance than simply finding rockets, or even toppling Hamas leadership. After failing to meet its objectives in Summer 2006 in Lebanon--namely, preventing rockets from hitting Israel in the north--Israel is hoping to regain its deterrent capabilities with neighboring militant groups. Israel is unlikely to face a regular war with its neighbors in the near future--their willingness to negotiate has a lot to do with Israel's ability to bloody them up if they choose to fight. So far, Hezbollah has chosen to sit this one out (so far), and read (though I've lost the link) that there are rumors floating about Hamas heading to Egypt to talk potential ceasefire options. So maybe it's working.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gaza Land War Begins

Israel is now holding nothing back against Gaza--its tanks and infantry have entered the strip with the public intent of capturing Hamas rocket launching sites (and likely very large weapons caches nearby) and dismantling them. The Israelis are also likely sending in large numbers of special operations forces to try and take down as much Hamas leadership-in-hiding as possible.

There's little to say yet on the operation, except that it shows a real commitment for Israel to pay the necessary political costs to take down Hamas in a way that would allow Fatah to take control of Gaza if/when it wins elections that Abbas is calling. Strangely, it may be this very war that enables the Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace. A reminder is due that Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist--it is only interested in driving Israel out of the area, and that it took over Gaza strip in a civil war in 2006 after losing elections to Fatah--their continued presence has been a tough roadblock for the Israelis, and it seems the Israelis feel they finally have the political capital with their neighbors to finish Hamas off. And despite all the criticism coming Israel's way, it looks like they're right. But now the fate of this operation depends on the military's ability to achieve its objectives without "mission creep" or a quagmire.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Israel Chooses a Gaza Strategy

Israel's former ambiguity in its Gaza strategy is gone, and has given way to a much more decisive strategy of total crippling of Hamas' offensive capabilities. Israel is attacking leadership, communications, security, weapons storage/manufacturing, and deployment sites in an effort to turn Hamas into an ineffectual flag-waving organization, rather than a militant wing with any bargaining power.
Figure 1: Gaza Strip With Urban Densities (Click for Larger Image)

The turn to decisiveness is good for Israel, who appeared to be waffling earlier over what to do. Poking at Gaza and bloodying/infuriating its civilian population without achieving any real political goals would have been not only wasteful, but counterproductive--they would have increased Hamas' will without seriously hampering its capabilities. Now, the Israelis have figured that they have already paid the political cost of the airstrikes, both in Gaza and internationally, and they might as well finish the job to their satisfaction. It will mean many more dead Gazans. It will mean billions in relief. It is a questionable decision overall, but one that appears rational once one accepts the given decision to begin serious airstrikes.

The commitment to cripple Hamas doesn't necessarily mean it will happen, despite Israel's impressive military. In the past, like the 1982 and 2006 wars in Lebanon, the Israelis have struggled to do serious damage to non-state actors. Israel's regular military, despite the state's security needs, remains largely outfitted to promptly dispatch Arab regular armies. But to be fair, nobody on earth has yet figured out how to properly deal with non-state actors, as the US in the last 7 years has demonstrated. Hamas remains resilient and confident. It is an organization that feeds politically on suffering, terror, mayhem, and death. Its support among its base is likely to harden. What makes life tougher for the Israelis is the constant decision between tactical advantage and strategic caution--Hamas has no qualms with hiding arms in Mosques, hiding terrorists in orphanages and hospitals. Israel must choose between letting them hide out, or killing children, killing the sick, killing religious observers. They seem to be going for the latter.

Figure 2: Arms Smuggling and Rocket Sites in Gaza

Israel may be preparing to invade Gaza. Reservists have been called, troops and tanks are lining up by the Gazan border, and foreign nationals are being escorted out of the country. The move may be an effort to pull Hamas security to the border and push civilians away, making it easier to more exclusively target militants, but it may be a legitimate preparation. A ground war is likely to become a mess--unless the Israelis have learned from the Summer 2006 Lebanon war, but chances are (sadly) that they haven't. The most productive thing that Israel can do in a ground war is conduct a series of raids to take down every single Hamas leader whose name registers on the Israeli radar that they can. The only way to truly get Hamas to fall apart will be to rob it so completely of leadership that it kills itself in an internal power struggle. The Mossad may have the intel the Israeli army needs to do that. It's tough to say.

For what it's worth, Israel's friends are sticking by their side. Israel's earlier diplomatic maneuvering is paying off. Egypt is keeping its border crossing closed except for inspected humanitarian relief trucks going into Gaza and inspected emergency transport trucks going out. Egypt has drawn a lot of criticism for this, from the UN and Iran, and from protesters just about everywhere, but it's sticking to its guns. The Lebanese government has come out against criticisms of Egypt, The Syrians have vowed to continue peace negotiations with Israel, and Jordan is keeping quiet despite a 50% Palestinian population. Such reactions are absolutely remarkable, and should mostly guarantee Israel a free hand in the Gaza operation. It remains likely that Livni has convinces Israel's neighbors that Hamas must go.

So with its free hand, Israel continues to pound Gaza, targeting as many Hamas critical points as they can. Hamas remains bold, but nothing Israel can do will change Hamas' rhetoric. Keep an eye out for a Gazan land war, and for more Hamas leaders to turn up dead. Israel may have a unique opportunity to eject this thorn in its side once and for all.
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