Israel is learning a lesson that the armies of other countries, including the US, have already grasped. Military force can no longer guarantee victory, certainly not in the conflict Israel and its western allies say they are engaged in - the "war on terror," as the Bush White House calls it, or the "long war," as the Pentagon now prefers.
Whether you call them guerrillas, insurgents, or terrorists, you cannot bomb them into submission, as the US has found to its cost in Iraq, and as Israel is discovering in Lebanon. Even Tony Blair appeared to admit this in his weekend speech to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp organization. "My concern is that we cannot win this struggle by military means or security measures alone, or even principally by them," he said. "We have to put our ideas up against theirs."
He was reflecting what his military and defense officials have been saying for a long time. Last September serving army officers applauded Colonel Tim Collins, who commanded the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment in the invasion of Iraq, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. He said: "We have clearly no plan ... We are relying entirely ... on military muscle to impose freedom and democracy." Desmond Bowen, the policy director at the Ministry of Defense, told a conference at the Royal United Services Institute last month: "No longer does the singular strand of military activity lead to success."
General Sir Rupert Smith, who was NATO deputy supreme commander and commander of UN forces in Bosnia, spells out the limitations of military power in his book The Utility of Force. "We are engaging in conflict for objectives that do not lead to a resolution of the matter directly by force of arms, since at all but the most basic tactical level our objectives tend to concern the intentions of the people and their leaders rather than territory or forces."
Senior officers in the British army are wondering whether they will ever again fight a war, let alone win one, in the conventional sense. For them, the phrase "war on terror" is a misnomer, one that elevates the enemy and suggests terrorist groups can be defeated by force of arms alone.
Before the attacks of September 11 2001 on New York and Washington, the MoD had published a paper entitled "The Future Strategic Context for Defense." No conventional military threats to Britain were likely to emerge, it predicted, in the 30 years to 2030. Instead, it identified terrorism, along with international crime. Prompted by the experiences of the military in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s (which are far from settled), the MoD, in a further attempt to drive home the military's limitations, decided to develop what it calls a "comprehensive approach." In this century, it says in a paper ordered by the chiefs of staff, "the symptoms of crisis will be spawned by a combination of climate change, ideology, greed, ethnic animosity, residual territorial claims, religious fanaticism, and competition for resources."
Military force is no answer to these. What is needed is a "clearer understanding of the root causes" of potential (and actual) conflicts. Revealing the MoD's liking for acronyms, the paper says there should be more cooperation with OGDs (other government departments), NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and IOs (international organizations).
The British general who knows this best is David Richards, who yesterday took command of an expanded NATO force in Afghanistan. He knows he is engaged in a battle for "hearts and minds," a task that requires political and civil institutions, diplomacy, and negotiations, not the barrel of a gun or a bomb from a warplane. Afghanistan is an unprecedented test for the military, and the member governments, of the world's most powerful alliance.
Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor. Email to:
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