The IDF Should Do
The Numbers

By Terrell E. Arnold

In the past few days, Israel's IDF forces have begun moving deeper into Lebanon.  While Israeli announcements of this plan did not include details, the goal is to clear the area of south Lebanon up to the Litani River of any Hezbollah fighters.  Israeli officials have said that already some 300 of an estimated 2,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed. According to a New York Times report, Brigadier General Shakar of Israel's Northern Command indicated that the IDF is forming a "Red Line" along both sides of the Litani River--which runs pretty much east to west  after it leaves the Lebanon range--and that a force amounting to around six brigades or 10,000 men would be fielded for this task. An overall objective, according to the Times, is to clear a two to three mile wide zone of land north of the Lebanon-Israel frontier of all Hezbollah fighters, explosives, mines, outposts, storage areas, barracks and other infrastructure, so that an international force can be deployed there without itself having to engage Hezbollah.
Couched in the jargon of military maneuver, the plan sounds plausible.  However, the numbers are, to say the least, challenging.  As a practical matter, delivery on the plan would require a scorched earth sterilization of roughly 60 to 100 square miles of southern Lebanon, while maintaining effective occupation of roughly 400-500 square miles of Lebanon to north of the Litani River.  That averages out to roughly 20 men per square mile.  Such a force is equivalent to a large hunting or foraging party, but hardly a substantial fighting force when scattered over the whole region.
The rejoinder to that observation is likely to be: But those forces will be assembled into fighting units according to the needs of identified battle zones.  Right, as Sun Tzu or Clausewitz might say, but where is the battle?  Here guerrilla warfare, as practiced by Hezbollah, has proven to be a baffling ordeal.  After three weeks Israelis are asking why the best army in the region, the one that beat three national armies in six days, has been unable to beat a ragtag bunch of insurgents in three weeks.  The second embarrassing question is: Having bombed poor Lebanon for several weeks with impunity, without resistance, and with the best equipment on the planet, why haven't IDF forces found and destroyed the battlefield?
Here the IDF really needs to do the numbers. To start with, how many Hezbollah are there?  At last count (estimate), Lebanon had almost 4 million people.  Roughly 60% of the population is Islamic. An estimated 40% of the population is Shi'a, and roughly half (who knows exactly) of the Shi'a population appears to be Hezbollah.  In effect, that means as many as 20-25% of the Lebanese (700,000-800,000 people) could be associated with Hezbollah.  However, clouding that number even more is the fact that recent polls indicate that as many as 80-85% of all Lebanese now strongly favor Hezbollah. 
Both of the above percentage sets pose major problems for engaging a guerrilla war in Lebanon. The State Department estimates Hezbollah fighting strength at "several thousand," while the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggests the fighting force, including actives, backups and reserves, could exceed 15-20,000. Even if the fighting element of Hezbollah is on the low side of those numbers, the asymmetrical nature of guerrilla war, the ease with which such forces can hide in and receive support from the general population, and the fact that battle grounds are more than likely to be chosen by Hezbollah than by the IDF, would commend a much larger force than Israel has deployed or has talked about.  Meanwhile, interdicting Hezbollah re-supply, not only from Iran and Syria but offshore sources, is a major challenge, and the Lebanese know their coast line and mountains far better than the Israelis.
The numbers suggest that a prudent Israeli/US objective would be to stop soon and not risk the likely failure of an effort to eliminate Hezbollah as a fighting force. At the moment, the prospect is for a war that will be very costly in Israeli blood and treasure, to say nothing of the costs to Lebanon. The most likely outcome appears little better than a draw. And that says nothing of the political furor in Lebanon, Israel, the United States and the rest of the world that will be generated by an Israeli effort to sterilize southern Lebanon by the gross means it already has applied to Lebanon as a whole.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on  He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Planning, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College.  He will welcome comment at



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