Israel and Hamas: a strategic analysis

The recent military operations between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas at Gaza triggered a flow of comments and analysis. Of course, given the fact that that conflict is highly politicized even in western audiences, many skirmishes between pros- and cons- occured, sometimes leading to  blur the question even further.

Whereas many could argue about what they think is "objective reality" (is Hamas an existential threat to Israel? Is Israel a colonial state willing to oppress the Palestinian people?), I deem it more enlightening to focus on a more nuanced approach that could take into account actors’ logic and perceptions. In addition to be more accurate in dealing with the strategic and political issues, it is also more relevant as it is really analytic and neither descriptive nor normative. Furthermore, such an analysis would have to gain a better understanding of the way those logic act in a dialectical way toward each other.


After "Cast Lead", it is highly plausible that the Hamas leadership understood that is was in its own interest to avoid any provocation toward Israel. Since it has become the ruling party in Gaza after the 2006 elections, Hamas had to navigate a very narrow line. On the one hand, avoiding any reprisal from Israel, fearing that the latter would be able to devastate the strip and endanger Hamas’ capability to provide public services and to act as an effective government. That explains why the number of rockets fired on Israel decreased significantly. At the same time, Hamas struggled to prevent the rise of more extremist groups (like the Islamic Jihad) and even cracked down on Salafis. On the other hand, those groups openly challenged Hamas whose legitimacy relies on its status as the representative of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israel.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the hypothesis would be that Hamas attempted to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in neighboring Egypt. In addition, the demise of ruling powers in that very area meant that it became a path for funneling weapons and cash to Gazan Salafis. Thus, they were able to strike Israel and put Hamas in front of an alternative: relying on coercion in order to suppress the rising and competing Salafis groups (but with the risk of losing its credibility as a "resistance movement"), or tolerating the attacks in the hope that Israel would not retaliate (but with the risk of being held accountable by the latter).

Thus when Israel zeroed in on Hamas, the rank and file in the organization pressured the leadership to give up restraint and to resume attacks. If president Morsi officially condemned and criticized Israel, his support to Hamas did not go further. At the end of the day, the changing internal and regional environment was perceived by Hamas leadership as an incentive to act. Internal contest and regional changes seemed to provide the organization with new opportunities to exploit in order to gain a better position in the confrontation with Israel. The goal was not to break the siege of Gaza, since in many ways that siege is useful for the organization’s political aims and financial interests. But it was certainly to force regional actors to act in order to demonstrate to the Israeli leadership that it would not be able to break Hamas’ rule on Gaza.


To some political elites, Hamas’ political goals pose an existential threat. In addition, if the size of Gaza makes it vulnerable, that is also true for Israel, whose territory can be hit by rockets launched from the coastal strip.

Facing such a threat, strategic calculus coupled with strategic culture led to a strategy of attrition. That strategy aimed to further pressure Hamas as well as more radical groups in order to disrupt those groups’ capabilities to hit Israel with medium-to-short range missiles. At the same time, that strategy was coupled with an information campaign designed to frame the narrative of the conflict for both domestic and international audiences. Showing its willingness and its determination to act, Netenyahu’s government proved able to manage the threat posed by Hamas. Lastly, even if that system is not totally perfect, the Iron Dome deflected the threats posed by rockets and missiles on the Israeli population.

There’s an important point here: that strategy is not aimed to win "decisively’ against the Palestinian organization. That is nearly impossible, since there’s only two courses of action that could lead to that outcome: either Israel would prove capable to cut Hamas’ support among the Gazans (which would necessitate an "hearts and minds" campaign directed toward the Palestinians , which doesn’t seem possible given the growing gap and cleavage between the IDF and the population and which is also not deemed desirable nor achievable by the Israeli government), or Israel would decide to cut a deal with the organization (which is highly improbable given the fact that the latter’s legitimacy relies on its rejection of any long-term deal with Israel). Put otherwise: there’s little hope for Israel to achieve any decisive political objective against  Hamas, or at least this is the main perception.

In short, Israel’s strategy consists in dealing with Hamas thus opening the question of what to do on the long run. There’s a lesson to draw from that short (and sometimes questionable) analysis. The alternative in war is not necessarily between winning and losing. Sometimes, it is more reasonable and more rational to deal with a threat or with an adversary by preventing him to reach his political objectives. Attrition is particularly well suited for that kind of strategic attitude. It can either lead to the adversary’s exhaustion (or isolation) or to its complete annihilation. More probably, it is able to maintain a high level of pressure against him, thus preventing him to hit and to harm. It is also truer when combined with deterrence, both by reprisals and by interdiction. Of course, that cannot replace a long-term reflection on how to put an end to the conflict. In that particular case, and given the role played by mutual perceptions, it is unlikely to see that outcome before minds are able to change in a deep way.

Stéphane Taillat

Perils and promises of drones: a strategic appraisal

A short post to outline several ideas and thoughts about the use of drones in the US strategy against Al Qaeda.

1) we have to grasp the political significance of Obama’s choice to rely on drones and SOF in order to "disrupt, dismantle" Al Qaeda:

The president narrowed its political goals: fighting Al Qaeda and its allies or affiliates without relying on state building, and without committing too much troops on the ground in a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. Instead, Obama understood his role as fighting the jihadist organization in order to deter further attacks against the US.

2) that goal led to a new strategy:

Using drones strikes as well as SOF raids (or other more conventional assets) is done through an attrition strategy. The main mechanism through which attrition is supposed to work is to inflict casualties to the enemy organization faster than it can replace it. It is not primarily intended to exhaust the adversary, but to raise its costs to pursue the war. In other words, exhaustion is only one possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, complete annihilation is another one.

3) physical and psychological effects of drone strikes:

Drones are not used only to inflict physical casualties, thus undermining the operational capabilities of AQ/its affiliates to control effectively a territory, to keep safe havens or to prepare further attacks. They also have psychological impacts, mostly on the networks, and especially on its weaker nodes, that is those actors amenable to leave the fight, or to hide in order to escape the strikes. As such, the strategy which relies on drones is not only an attrition strategy, but also a part of a more comprehensive deterrence strategy. That’s what "disrupting" means: inflicting systemic blows that undermine the operational capabilities of a given network as a whole.

On the material side of the effects, drones have proven highly effective as a decapitation tool. On the psychological one, it’s difficult to really assess the effects, but it seems that drones, used in addition to other tools, may have produced subversive effects.

4) Pressuring Al Qaeda?

The problem is the relevance of such a strategy on the long run. A "pure" attrition strategy would likely lead to a slaughter, since AQ and its affiliates have been able to reinforce or to replace the losses. What could be the threshold that would trigger an annihilation, or exhaustion of AQ? The "search and destroy" experience in Vietnam should remember us that relying only on measurable metrics (especially in terms of "body count") is fraught with cognitive biases.

On the other hand, a "pure" deterrence strategy is difficult to wage against non-state actors, and especially "irregular" organizations. It is thus possible to limit AQ’s capabilities to wage a campaign of attacks, but up to a point. Zero-risk is not really a realist option.

That’s why using drones strikes – both more precise and less costly than conventional counterinsurgency i.e. as much efficient as a strategy can be – should prove more relevant on the long run if used as a way to sustain the pressure against AQ and its affiliates. The goal would not be to dismantle or to disrupt (not to speak of neutralize), but instead to compel AQ to stay on a defensive stance (or, at least, a less offensive one).

In addition, relying on drones and SOF raids, while highlighting other potential costs (in diplomatic terms since it is necessary to achieve an agreement with the host nation, with the very exception of failed states maybe; in terms of domestic support since both the military institutions and the public opinion could raised several political obstacles, in terms of local support since drones may have a negative impact on the local population), should not be thought as a silver bullet. Furthermore, relying on such an indirect way to deal with AQ should not let the military institutions to forget its institutional experience from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, that strategy has to adapt to the evolving character of the war, which is both conditioned by internal calculus and political bargaining and of course, by the adversary’s strategy.

Stéphane TAILLAT

Unleash Hell!!! "War logic" and the war in Iraq

As far as I can remember, the biblical story of David vs. Goliath has never been to me the story of a bright victory of weakness against strength On the contrary, I’ve always thought that David was the strongest of both opponents. Not only does he rely on the will of God but he also draws upon his cleverness in order to defeat his adversary. It’s not so counter-intuitive as it could appear at a first glance: power doesn’t necessarily imply strength or having much more material capabilities.

From "war" to "logic of war":

In the last issue of Res Militaris, Laure Bardiès wrote a smart and insightful piece in which she argues to give up descriptive categories  and instead promote analytical ones in order to better explain and understand contemporary wars.

Basically, her arguments draw on weberian sociology to build ideal-types that could account for the logic of actors (by which she means not only the belligerents, but also different actors, pursuing different and sometimes diverging interests, inside a political-military apparatus). The reason is clear: categories we are used to employ in order to depict contemporary conflicts are either too descriptive (i.e. tied to the formal characteristics of wars) or too normative (i.e. shaped by one actor’s perception of the other). "Asymmetric" war (war between a "weak" and a "strong") falls in the former while "irregular" war (war between state-soldiers and terrorists/insurgents) is clearly typical of the latter.

She proposes to look further: according to Clausewitz, war is waged for political purpose. Means as well as ends are a function of the significance of the fight given by the actor. It could thus be possible to design ideal types that could account for their logic, the dynamic interplay between them and their evolution in time. Accordingly, she offers to transform the categories of "total war" and "limited war" into "total war logic" and "limited war logic".

In order to build her ideal type, she suggests to analyze the relations between issues, objectives and means.

Thus, a "total war logic" would exist when an actor has absolute issues at stake (like its survival), design accordingly its objectives as imposing its will whatever the costs and thus relies on every means at its disposal in order to do so. On the contrary, a "limited war logic" would be characterized by relative issues, objectives restricted by a threshold beyond whom costs would overcome the expected benefits, and  thus means would be quantitatively restricted.

Eventually, Laure Bardiès concludes by articulating a dynamic interaction between those logic:  what if an actor has a "limited war logic" against his opponent waging (in its own perception) a "total war"? Obviously, the latter has the advantage owing to its greater capacity to abide costs. In addition, she argues that the real difference between both logic lies in two criteria

1) the determination to pursue the armed struggle

2) the proportion of means effectively engaged in comparison to the total amount of means at the actor’s disposal

Applying "war logic" to the US War in Iraq:

Empirically, it is difficult to apply that model. Of course, this is precisely the function that ideal type is supposed to perform: to serve as a reference in order to analyze contingent situations.  No historical configuration would exactly fit with one of the ideal type, the greatest probability being that it would be situated somewhere between both poles of the spectrum (or, more precisely, that it would shift from one to another due to the dynamic characteristic of war). But, if we take the three elements of the model, the Iraq war (as waged by the Bush administration) would fit in the following table:

In that case, issues and objective are congruent with a "total war logic" while means comply more with the "limited war logic". Indeed, issues were raised at a very high level, with the Bush administration arguing that Saddam Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction or funnel them to terrorist groups in order to wage war on the US soil. Objectives were also designed as absolute: first to destroy the regime and then to transform Iraq in a stable, democratic State allied with the US in its struggle against Al Qaeda. On the contrary, means were mostly limited, both in the invasion phase and in the subsequent stage of occupation (the main strategy during the first years being to withdraw troops as soon as possible).

In order to understand that gap, one should examine the very reasons of the war against Saddam’s regime, which have nothing to do with the real threat it posed to the US (even if Bush and his counselors thought it could be a real threat at the time), but more with several ideologically biased perspectives about  the threat. First, the invasion was supposed to prevent (or preempt in the Bush’s rhetoric) attack from Saddam and second to deter any aggression. Instead of assessing the threat of non state actors, the Bush administration at the time was more concerned by the threat posed by rogue states. Second, that move was a way to fix the problem posed by the the regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq. Third, the war was also a mean to restore the status of the US after 9/11.

That gap could also be explained by the way Donald Rumsfeld and several strategists in the Pentagon thought war should be now waged: with limited, but more lethal and decisive, means. In their view, technological advance coupled with operational excellence would suffice to overthrow the regime.

Eventually, ideology had a vote: neoconservative Weltanschauung – which envisioned democracy as the "natural regime" of any society – coupled with the administration’s reluctance to nation building led to a poorly planned post-Saddam Iraq.

With regards to the means, they were mostly limited both in quantity (troops deployed on the ground were mostly insufficient to perform the task of securing Iraq after the fall of the regime and achieving Bremer’s revolutionary agenda) and in quality (meaning here that the strategy was oriented toward withdrawal).

Incoherent strategy: 

That discrepancy between issues and objectives on the one hand, and means on the other hand led to strategic incoherence.  In order to understand the difficulties encountered by the US military in Iraq, one has to add two critical variables.

  1. the dominant elements of the strategic and military culture insist on the necessity to achieve a decisive victory. In other words, even a "limited war logic" can imply the maximum use of force in order to win a quick victory (and one could add: all the more decisive that issues and objectives are "limited"). In the case of Iraq, that logic implied to deliver the maximum amount of force in order to topple the regime. The problem is that, once Saddam defeated, a much harder challenged emerged, which would have requested a much larger amount of political patience and strategic flexibility. Consequently, in the absence of a decisive victory in the other goal (building a stable and democratic Iraq), the Bush administration shifted to denial. That produced a lowering of the expectations regarding the final stage to achieve before withdrawing and releasing sovereignty to the Iraqi government. Hence, the hope raised by a temporary surge of force in order to achieve a decisive victory against insecurity. The fact that the Bush administration took such a long time to accept the challenge of the task and the reality suggests that the "total war logic" was almost rhetorical. The fact that it accepted to lower its expectations suggests that the logic became less and less "total" and more and more "limited" with time (and especially after Bush secured a second mandate). Nevertheless, the capabilities of the US to endure such a military effort on the long run is tied to both determination (especially regarding the political leaders and the officers deployed on the ground) and endurance (with regards to military capabilities to sustain a high tempo rotation cycle).
  2. given that first element, it is worth to underline the link between that culture of "decisive and quick victory" on the one hand and the reliance on a strategy of annihilation on the other hand. That link is in no way necessary. Insurgents’ strategy suggests that a "total war logic" can instead rely on a strategy of attrition, in order to raise the opponent’s costs until he decides to give up. Facing such a strategy, the Bush administration (and the theater commander) could not longer rely on the sole use of military force in order to win the decision. If the surge achieved several of the objectives set by the administration, it was a consequence of multiple factors, in which the US strategy is only  a part (even if I argue that it is the most important as it benefited from other political dynamics at play which it partially shaped in return). Although eventually that strategy morphed into a "hybrid" form, associating annihilation goals (dismantling "irreconcilable" actors) and attrition means (the use of SOF raids in order to disrupt AQI’s organization and leadership).

Time and interests:

That model is highly significant if one considers the very importance of time and interests. Actually, interests are what shape issues and objectives. Those interests lie in various actors and can take several forms: material as well as ideological, bureaucratic as well as corporate. In some case, they even can affect the whole society (when survival is at stake). But that doesn’t imply those interests to be stable or able to determinate issues and objectives in a strict causal way. A narrower view tends to show how the margin of maneuver for political leaders is more important than one would expect. Notwithstanding, interests play a role in limiting or raising issues.

But that’s also a function of time: the longer a conflict, the more the tendency to shift from one logic to the other. In the case of the war waged by the Bush administration in Iraq, determination and stubbornness was a byproduct of high issues and unrealistic objectives. But determination translated into denial and did not lead to raise the level of means deployed in Iraq, with the very exception of the surge. But Bush’s decision to escalate is not a proof a a "total war logic", it has more to do with the bias toward the need to achieve decisive victory. On issues and objectives, time tended to lower Bush’s expectations and focused his attention on more limited objectives in Iraq.  Quite the opposite, Obama’s narrowing of issues and objectives fit more with the "total war logic": by elevating the real objective of the US toward dismantling Al Qaeda and escalating drones strikes and SOF raids, the 44th president showed his willingness and determination to achieve victory.

In short, the Iraq war case study suggests that means are not necessarily determined by issues and objectives, but by other factors. Among them is the perception of what military force can achieve in terms of military and political effects. In return, that false perception gave way to a misleading assessment on those effects, leading to the belief that the US should avoid long term commitment on the ground in the near future.

To conclude, the war waged in Iraq by the Bush administration may fit the "war logic" model proposed by Laure Bardies. Indeed,both  determination and the relative level of means are  a function of the duration of the conflict. But, as her model deals more with the coherence between issues, objectives and means, it is worth to complete it with intermediary variables that would help to explain and understand the disjunction between those elements. In short, her work is the first step toward a better understanding of today’s dynamics of conflict. Further researches programs should focus on relevant question as the supposed role of the public opinion – or more accurately, its perception by political elites – in shaping strategic decision; while mine are more focused on the way "war logic" is an important component in the process of shaping political and military effects.. Because not only is strategy a bridge between ends and means, but its function is to generate effects.


Little America: quelques réflexions

Lisant l’excellent livre de Radjiv Chandrasekaran sur les Américains dans le Helmand, je ne peux m’empêcher de noter quelques réflexion. Bien informé, l’auteur nous livre en effet les éléments permettant de confirmer quelques hypothèses concernant d’autres théâtres (notamment l’Irak). Je prends deux exemples:

  1. Sur l’envoi de 10 000 Marines dans le Helmand en 2009. L’auteur montre que tous à Washington, ainsi que McChrystal d’ailleurs, savent que le déploiement de troupes supplémentaires à Kandahar serait plus pertinent. Au lieu de cela, le général Nicholson est envoyé dans cette province minée par l’insurrection mais ne représentant que 1% de la population du pays. On peut certes y trouver un enjeu: mettre fin à la culture de pavot qui alimenterait les Taliban (R. Holbrooke soulignant que l’essentiel du soutien financier vient plutôt de donateurs des pays du Golfe), faire pression sur les dirigeants corrompus d’une province que les Britanniques n’ont pu pacifier, démontrer enfin la validité des tactiques de "contre-insurrection". Il n’en reste pas moins que Kandahar est un objectif plus valable, non seulement parce qu’il s’agit de la troisème ville du pays, mais également en raison de sa situation de carrefour. Ce qui frappe sont les raisons avancées pour justifier le choix du Helmand: le refus des Canadiens de se faire épauler par les Américains (les Canadiens considérant que la sécurité s’est améliorée à Kandahar), la crainte d’aliéner les populations locales (Kandahar étant une cité symbolique pour les Pachtounes), mais surtout la demande expresse des Marines (via le général Conway lui-même) de déployer l’ensemble des moyens organiques d’une Force Expéditionnaire, bref de disposer d’un "Marinestan".
  2. Concernant la lutte contre la culture du pavot, on observe un écart -si ce n’est un fossé- entre les logiques des experts locaux, celles du Département d’Etat et celle de USAID. Ainsi, les spécialistes de la région recommandent de favoriser la culture du coton et l’industrie textile. USAID et le Département d’Etat considèrent au contraire qu’il faut transformer la région vers une agriculture de fruits et agrumes destinés à l’exportation. Les moyens qui sont alloués aux experts de la région et aux bonnes volontés locales sont extrêmement réduits, et on voit comment les représentants d’USAID s’enfoncent dans leur raisonnement, estimant que -dans l’attente du développement des vergers- il faut occuper la main d’oeuvre du Helmand à la construction de routes, ou bien favorisant les politiques d’épandage de défoliants dans les champs de pavot. Au bout du compte, les retards pris, l’insuffisance des moyens financiers et l’aveuglement bureaucratique conduisent non seulement à favoriser le pavot mais aussi à attiser la méfiance des agriculteurs locaux vis à vis des Américains (militaires, agences gouvernementales ou ONG) et même des représentants de Kaboul.

Ces deux exemples, hâtivement brossés, posent question. Ils montrent que, en dépit de la circulation accrue des informations entre le théâtre et Washington, l’enchevêtrement des logiques divergentes entre des acteurs multiples conduit soit à l’absence de décision, soit à l’élaboration de stratégies inefficaces voire contre-productives. Le deuxième enseignement, lié au premier, insiste sur l’éloignement géographique et social entre le terrain et Washington: la prise d’une décision et sa mise en oeuvre ne sont en rien linéaires. Il faut tenir compte de la médiatisation imposée par les acteurs et la distance. On peut certes arguer des lourdeurs bureaucratiques, des différences de perception, des logiques corporatistes. Mais c’est surtout l’existence de deux espaces distincts sans être séparés, de deux logiques (celle qui prévaut pour les acteurs sur place, celle qui anime les décideurs à Washington) qui démontre à quel point on ne peut simplement répliquer telles quelles des décisions et des stratégies décidées en haut lieu. Comment, en dépit des discours sur "la localisation de la contre-insurrection et de la stabilisation", le principe de subsidiarité n’est pas aussi simple à mettre en oeuvre.

Propulsé par
Thème Esquire.


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