Andrew Exum, founder of the fine counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama, wrote a short piece for the New York Times in which he suggested Israelis could learn something from Americans in Iraq and make a greater effort to reduce civilian casualties during future conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.
“[I]t may be in the best interests of the dominant military actor to adhere to rules of engagement that go beyond the laws of land warfare and international conventions,” he wrote. “The time may arrive when Israel decides that highly kinetic, enemy-centric military operations do not necessarily serve Israel’s longer-term strategic aims. Instead, Israel may want to adopt lessons learned from the United States experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and place a higher emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties at the expense of lethality and force protection.”
Israelis already go far out of their way to reduce civilian casualties, even when doing so puts the lives of their own soldiers at risk. Nevertheless, as Exum says, the Unites States goes even further. When General David Petraeus took over as commander in Iraq, protecting civilians from insurgent and terrorist violence was made top priority. The most effective way to protect the lives of American soldiers, it was decided, was by first protecting the lives of Iraqi civilians. This, I believe, is what Exum is getting at. He’s a former U.S. Army captain in Iraq, and he knows what he’s talking about.
The Army’s new counterinsurgency manual explains why this works. “Ultimate success in COIN [counterinsurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained…These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.”
David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus, said something similar in an interview published in yesterday’s Washington Post when asked which lessons learned in Iraq can be applied in Afghanistan. “I would say there are three,” he said. “The first one is you’ve got to protect the population. Unless you make people feel safe, they won’t be willing to engage in unarmed politics. The second lesson is, once you’ve made people safe, you’ve got to focus on getting the population on your side and making them self-defending. And then a third lesson is, you’ve got to make a long-term commitment.”
Unfortunately, this won’t work in Gaza and Lebanon. At least it won’t work right now. Lebanese and Palestinian civilians don’t need nearly as much protection from Hezbollah and Hamas as Iraqis needed from Al Qaeda and sectarian death squads.