The unpredictability of war
IDF says likelihood of war low, but past experience shows need for caution
Published: 02.27.07, 11:33 / Israel Opinion
The intelligence assessment presented to the government Sunday conveyed a message that features an inherent contradiction: Top intelligence officials warned that Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah are rapidly accumulating advanced weapons, improving their modus operandi, undertaking extensive preparations for a wide-scale confrontation, and continuing to resort to and encourage terrorism.
However, the same officials said, despite the worrisome information, all signs show that the leaders of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah have no intention to initiate full-scale hostilities against Israel in the near future. Therefore, the officials concluded, the likelihood of war in the coming year is low.
This assessment is problematic, to say the least, and should be approached with much skepticism. Most wars in the modern era, both abroad and in our region, broke out at an unexpected junction and surprised the parties involved.
Only a relatively low number of wars in the past century and this one were the product of initiative and advance planning by one of the involved parties. For example, World War II, initiated by Nazi Germany, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s initiated by Saddam Hussein, and the second Gulf War, initiated by the United States.
Almost all other wars across the globe, ranging from World War I to the India-Pakistan war in the 1970s, broke out by surprise as a result of a combination of regional instability and events that nobody had control over and could not be predicted, or because of hasty moves and decisions by the leaders of one of the warring sides.
Out of the many wars the State of Israel was involved in, only two were the product of initiative and planning by Arab leaders ??? the War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War. Two other wars broke out as a result of complete Israeli initiative ??? the Sinai Campaign in 1956 and the first Lebanon War in 1982. All other wars surprised Israel after breaking out as a result of an unexpected combination of circumstances and events that escalated to the point of war.
The Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the first Gulf War (where Israel sustained Iraqi missile hits without being involved in the war itself) and the second Lebanon War belong in that category. Overall, out of the eight wars Israel was involved in, five were not predicted by Israeli intelligence. Moreover, a short while before each one of those wars, the national intelligence assessment produced by the IDF General Staff's Intelligence Branch ruled that "the likelihood of war this year is low."
We could expect those whose estimates regarding the likelihood of war were proven false five times would conduct themselves more cautiously. This is even truer today, with the risk of unexpectedly escalating into a war greater than ever.
Comprehensive assessment needed
Perhaps we can accept the assumption that Bashar Assad and also Nasrallah are uninterested in a war with Israel at this time, but there are clear signs that the Syrian leadership includes many who back the idea of heating up the situation on the border with Israel, by introducing Hizbullah-style "resistance" activities. This would be done in order to lift the heavy international pressure faced by Damascus over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri and Syria's involvement in Lebanon.
Israel should ask itself how it would respond if hot-tempered Syrian officials win out, the situation on the border heats up, and Golan Heights communities find themselves facing disturbances and possibly Katyusha rocket fire. And should Israel respond, can't the situation escalate into war where Hizbullah also fires rockets from positions north of the Litani River? Is such scenario in the coming summer only the product of the wild imagination of professional war mongers?
And what would happen if the Administration in Washington decided to curb, through a limited military strike, the assistance offered by Iran to rebels and terrorists in Iraq or Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear arms? Then too it is likely that the Iranian response won't pass over Israel. And besides, even a wide-scale IDF military operation in the Gaza Strip may drag radical Islamic elements to boost their assistance to the Palestinians in a manner that requires Israel to operate on other fronts as well.
The intelligence branch is tasked with assessing the capabilities and intentions of Israel's enemies, and therefore an "intelligence assessment" like the one that was presented to the government is not a substitute for a comprehensive assessment of the overall situation that takes into account all the elements active in the theater, including the moves to be undertaken by the Americans, Iranians, and various rebels in Iraq, and including the decisions and moves to be undertaken by Israel. All of the above could escalate into war on short notice, or without any notice.
Will Winograd help?
In the face of this reality, it would be proper for the General Staff Intelligence Branch, which is responsible for preparing the national intelligence assessment, to act more cautiously before it publicly makes the all-clear announcement regarding the possibility of war in the coming 12 months. This is true for other intelligence assessment bodies as well ??? the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Research Division ??? which are all partners to the same assessment.
It does not matter at all which reservations and footnotes were added by the IDF intelligence chief and Mossad director to their assessments. The fact that for the first time in the history of the State of Israel these organizations were invited to independently present their intelligence assessment to the entire government grants extra validity to their "low likelihood" assessment in the eyes of the public, which means they will bear full responsibility for the results in the events the assessment is proven? false.
Moreover, intelligence chiefs, as well as the prime minister and public, must recognize the limitations inherent in an intelligence assessment the offers a snapshot of the enemy's capabilities and intentions.
The lessons of the last war require an integrative body in the State of Israel that would place the intelligence assessment into the context of the overall Israeli and regional puzzle and provide a new product: "National siuation assessment." On the basis of this assessment, the government would finally be able to make high-quality and proper decisions in the areas of security and distribution of national resources.
The body that is supposed to prepare such assessment is the National Security Agency, but the problem is that at this time it does not possess the abilities and status that would enable it to perform this task. Perhaps the Winograd Commission's conclusions will get us out of this mess too.
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