In the thirty-six hours before the uneasy ceasefire in Lebanon took hold on the morning of 14 August 2006, Israel poured thousands of troops into southern Lebanon and was still conducting air raids across the country two hours before the deadline. Hizbollah, in turn, fired 250 missiles into northern Israel in the final eighteen hours, demonstrating that even these huge Israeli troop movements were not sufficient to force even a temporary halt to the missile threat.
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since October 2001
Paul Rogers tracks the July 2006 war in a series of daily columns:
"Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation"
(17 July 2006)
"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)
"A proxy war"
(19 July 2006)
"Israel: losing control" (20 July 2006)
"Hit Beirut, target Tehran" (21 July 2006)
"Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)
"Lebanon: no quick fix" (26 July 2006)
"A triple front: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon"
(27 July 2006)
"Lebanon: the world's choice" (28 July 2006)
"After Qana: a false dawn?" (31 July 2006)
"Israel's strategic impasses"
(1 August 2006)
"Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)
"The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure"
(7 August 2006)
"Why Israel is losing"
(9 August 2006)
"The Lebanon war's pivotal moment"
(11 August 2006)
The main reason for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) action was to enable its troops to systematically search the territory they had occupied in order to find and destroy the numerous underground bunkers, stores and munitions dumps established by Hizbollah. This would severely weaken the organisation, at least in terms of its military capabilities south of the Litani river, giving the Israeli government and the IDF some reason to claim an effective result from the month-long war. It is therefore surprising that reliable sources within the IDF are calling for a rapid withdrawal from southern Lebanon to positions very close to the border.
This withdrawal is, admittedly, planned to take up to ten days and is dependent on Lebanese army units being available. In turn, however, it means "that the IDF will not be conducting searches for Hezbollah fighters or arms caches in the areas that it has captured over the last few days, which the army defined as 'the heart of the operational campaign' against Hezbollah" (see Amos Harel & Aluf Benn, "Tense calm across Lebanon as UN-brokered truce takes effect", Ha'aretz, 14 August 2006).
Israel's belief in the value of an early withdrawal is underpinned by knowledge that Hizbollah remains highly effective; if the ceasefire were to break down with up to 20,000 IDF personnel embedded across much of southern Lebanon, the result would be a situation where the IDF would suffer heavy casualties while Hizbollah would still retain most of its missiles. This is just one more indicator of the problems facing the Olmert government, now that calls for Olmert's resignation are increasing.
More generally, it is indicative of the concern among neo-conservatives and other pro-Israeli groups in Washington that Israel has failed to use the political and military support offered by the United States to decisively defeat Hizbollah (see "The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure" (7 August 2006).
The concern in Washington is mirrored in criticisms in Israel that the Bush administration actively encouraged the Olmert government to take action against Hizbollah. While the United States did not specifically urge Israel to respond to the Hizbollah border raid, this was little more than an incident that set up a pre-planned operation. Moreover, at a key meeting between Bush and Olmert at the White House on 23 May, seven weeks before the start of the war, Bush is reported to have made clear his support for Israeli military action against Hizbollah (see Robert Parry, "Israeli Leaders Fault Bush on War" Consortium News, 13 August 2006).
It now appears, even if some quarters in Israel may dispute it, that the Israeli action against Hizbollah was not far short of a joint operation (see Seymour Hersh, "Watching Lebanon", New Yorker, 14 August 2006). The US air force (Usaf), in particular, is intensely interested in how the Israeli air force handled the issue of targeting the numerous Hezbollah bunkers, some of them buried forty metres or more underground (see "The Lebanon war's pivotal moment" 11 August 2006). It is widely believed that Hizbollah has used Iranian and even North Korean technology and experience in constructing these facilities. Depending on how such an operation went, the Usaf might therefore get highly useful information that it could use in planning operations against Iran.
The Iran factor
The actual experience on the ground makes clear that the original expectation in Washington has backfired in a remarkable way. If Israel had succeeded in its aerial "shock and awe" campaign against Hizbollah, this would in principle have undercut Iran's ability and opportunity to respond to an attack on its nuclear facilities by encouraging action by its Hizbollah surrogate against Israel. The Bush administration would therefore have solved one of its key problems, thus diminishing too Iran's wider prestige across the region.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)
Instead, the opposite has happened and Israel's failure to disarm Hizbollah is in consequence also a failure of United States policy towards Iran (see "Hit Beirut, target Tehran" 21 July 2006). If the Israeli military, with all its air power, modern equipment and weaponry and direct experience of warfare cannot defeat a guerrilla force of a few thousand in a small country, what is the chance of an Israeli or American attack on Iran avoiding an Iranian-inspired response that makes the continued US occupation of Iraq unsustainable?
The implication is that US or Israeli action against Iran's nuclear facilities becomes much more problematic at precisely the time when Iran's standing in the region has been much improved by the war in Lebanon. Yet Iran still remains the real enemy for the Bush administration, with the need to confront Tehran's nuclear ambitions being as strong as ever.
As a result of the Lebanon war, the recently increased insecurity in Iraq, and the continuing troubles in Afghanistan, there will be those in Washington who will urge immediate action against Iran. From such a perspective, the Israeli failure in Lebanon will result in a steady increase in Iranian influence across the region and a likely acceleration in its nuclear programme.
Any such development remains utterly unacceptable to the Bush administration as well as Israel, so it may be better to contemplate military action against those nuclear facilities now rather than later. Moreover, such action would be a powerful diversion in the run-up to the mid-term elections to Congress in November 2006. The guns of August might yet become the bombs of October.