Learning from Lebanon

The Westphalian nation-state is fraying at the edges and Lebanon is a primary example of this. It has a regular army and it has the Hezbollah — a terrorist organisation that is officially tolerated if not recognised as the army of the south. The Hezbollah has taught the seasoned Israeli army several hard lessons. 
 
The first and foremost lesson of the war in Lebanon is that no matter what the peaceniks may say, conventional war simply cannot be wished away. While sub-conventional warfare and low intensity conflict dominate the strategic scenario, any nation that neglects its preparation for conventional war does so at its peril. Terrorism is not a vague threat any more. It is a cohesive, organised threat with strategic depth and needs a carefully coordinated multi-disciplinary response. 
 
The next major lesson is one that has been learnt before in all the recent conflicts. While surgically delivered modern air power can wreak immense havoc, no nation can win the war from the air. A corollary to this lesson is that modern technology can only facilitate combat, not help the technologically superior nation to win due to its asymmetric advantage. To achieve political and military objectives, air strikes must be combined with boots on the ground to physically eliminate enemy soldiers or terrorists from their bunkers and hideouts. Such a course of action naturally entails incurring casualties and this is a factor that must be carefully weighed before launching a major offensive. Any nation that is not prepared to suffer casualties can at best hope for a stalemate, not victory. 
 
No matter how carefully the targets are selected, there will always be collateral damage and the media will continue to beam gory images almost in real-time into hundreds of millions of homes across the world. The media is now the third party in every conflict. It can no longer be relied upon to be neutral. It takes sides, based on the predilections of its owners. The media will also decide who will be declared the victor and who, the vanquished. 
 
There is no such thing as a short and sharp low-cost conflict. The enemy is always far more resilient than military planners are ready to concede and while it may take initial losses, it always bounces back with a vengeance. Democracies will have to acquire the will to take a fight to its logical conclusion. 
 
Finally, a nation can prevail in all tactical engagements, as the US and the coalition forces did in Iraq, and still lose at the strategic level. The Israeli Defence Force will eventually pull out from Lebanon without achieving its strategic objectives. 
 
The writer is a senior fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi