OPINIONS

Mon 17 Jun 2024 6:59 pm - Jerusalem Time

Israel’s War of Regime Change Is Repeating America’s Mistakes

By David Petraeus, Meghan L. O’Sullivan, and Richard Fontaine

The term “regime change” has fallen out of favor in the past two decades, and it is not a term that Israelis use to describe the war they are waging in Gaza. But regime change is precisely what Israel is seeking. Its military operation in Gaza aims to destroy Hamas as a political and military entity and eliminate the de facto government the group has overseen for nearly two decades.

The Israeli campaign is an understandable response to the horrific attacks of October 7, in which Hamas-led terrorists killed around 1,200 Israelis, took some 250 hostage, and deeply traumatized the Israeli public. In the aftermath of the attacks, Israeli leaders rightly concluded that it was unacceptable for Hamas to continue running Gaza—just as American leaders decided after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that they could no longer accept the status quo in Afghanistan, where the Taliban was harboring al Qaeda, and that they had no choice but to carry out regime change there.

Of course, Afghanistan was not the only place in the greater Middle East where the United States sought regime change after 9/11. In the years that followed the attacks, U.S.-led coalitions also toppled regimes in Iraq and Libya, and helped (albeit modestly and inadequately) Syrian opposition forces seeking to overthrow the dictator Bashar al-Assad. These were searing experiences for Washington: bloody, costly, and humbling. The most consequential of those campaigns—the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq—were shaped by a number of fateful strategic errors, as well as a smaller number of important successes.

Today, Israel is making many of those same errors, including some of the most glaring mistakes that the United States made in the early years of the Iraq war. As the United States did in Iraq in 2003, Israel began its war without a plan to create a governing structure, in its case to replace Hamas, and no clear blueprint has emerged after months of fighting. As the United States did in the early phases of its post-9/11 wars, Israel has moved decisively and at significant human cost to clear territory of terrorists, only to see them reconstitute after troops depart—a flawed approach that American military officers came to call “clear and leave.” And to an even greater degree than the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel has come under intense international criticism for the civilian casualties its operations have produced.

But just as Israel has made errors akin to those made by the United States, it can also learn from some of the successes of the American campaigns—especially those of the “surge” strategy that Washington adopted in Iraq beginning in 2007. Analogies always have their limits, and the U.S. experience cannot supply all the answers that Israeli leaders need in Gaza. It may, however, raise the right questions and provide relevant ways to think about the choices that lie ahead.

CLEAR AND HOLD

Urban combat is extraordinarily difficult and often very bloody. The successful U.S. and allied efforts to root out al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, and Shiite militias in Baghdad, Basra, Falluja, Ramadi, and other Iraqi cities during the surge—and to eliminate the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Mosul and Raqqa some years later—inevitably resulted in civilian casualties and significant destruction of infrastructure, despite considerable efforts to keep both to a minimum.

As difficult as those operations were, the one in Gaza is vastly harder. Its population is more densely concentrated, Hamas has enjoyed free range through some 350 miles of underground tunnels, and the group’s leaders and fighters use civilians as shields. Israeli forces have reportedly dismantled the majority of Hamas’s organized brigades and battalions, but many thousands of fighters remain. Some 120 hostages are still missing and may be present in the very terrain in which fighting takes place.

Israel’s aim of destroying Hamas through sheer military force would succeed only if the group were rendered incapable of accomplishing its mission as well as prevented from reconstituting. The United States learned in Iraq and elsewhere that the latter outcome is all-important. Killing and capturing terrorists and insurgents is insufficient; the key to solidifying security gains and stemming the recruitment of new adversaries is holding territory, protecting civilians, and providing governance and services to them. That approach reduces the likelihood that fighters will find succor among the population, which would allow them to reconstitute.

In Gaza, Israel has engaged in numerous clearing operations but has not held territory with an enduring troop presence. Criminals, insurgents, and reconstituted Hamas battalions have filled the resulting vacuums. This mirrors much of the U.S. experience in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. During that period, American forces were largely concentrated in forward-operating bases from which they launched patrols and missions to combat groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq and various Iranian-backed Shiite militias. But the enemy often retook territory almost as soon as U.S. troops departed, requiring multiple efforts to clear the same areas. In the process, the approach at times created more insurgents than it took off the battlefield.

Israel’s military operations must be designed to minimize civilian casualties.

In 2007, Washington pursued a major change of strategy. During the surge that followed, U.S. troops moved off major bases, instead living in smaller outposts in and around important communities—77 additional locations just in the greater Baghdad area alone. American forces began making a greater effort to distinguish between irreconcilable insurgents and the broader population and pledged to make life better and more secure for civilians. It became clear that the only way to secure the people and improve their lives was to live among them. That meant clearing territory of insurgents and then keeping them out by creating gated communities with entry control points, biometric screening and ID cards, and constant patrols. To measure success, the U.S. military started to pay closer attention not to the number of enemy fighters killed but to the amount of populated territory free of them, the overall level of violence, the number of civilian casualties, and the ability of civilians to engage in everyday life. At the same time, military officers began persuading tribal and religious leaders in Sunni communities to reconcile with American forces—to stop cooperating with or submitting to al Qaeda and to instead help the United States in fighting the group.

To prevent irreconcilable Hamas elements from reconstituting, Israel will need to sharply distinguish them from innocent civilians, pledging to improve the security and lives of the latter even as it continues to relentlessly fight the former. Israel’s military operations must be designed to minimize civilian casualties, which will become an easier task as Hamas bases and operational headquarters are eliminated. As was the case in successful U.S. operations, commanders should ask whether a given operation will eliminate more enemy fighters than it might produce.

The situations in Iraq in 2007 and Gaza today differ in clear and significant ways. And there is no guarantee that Palestinians would respond positively to Israeli operations aimed at providing security and a better life—at the very least, that would take a great deal of time. But U.S. forces found that they were able to regain the trust of Iraqi communities even where they had been persistently targeted. What is beyond dispute is that until some force, Israeli or otherwise, can clear Hamas fighters, hold territory, and build basic infrastructure and governing mechanisms in Gaza over the medium term, Hamas will very likely continue to reconstitute itself.

BUILD AND REVIVE

If the post-9/11 U.S. experience is any indicator, securing areas free from Hamas infiltration will be necessary but not sufficient. In Iraq and at times in Afghanistan, improved security allowed for an American-led building phase and eventually revived political and economic activity. Those outcomes, however, required Washington to articulate a positive vision for ordinary people in those places. An insurgent-free area would not only be safer for civilians, the promise went, but would also see vital services restored: food, water, hospitals, transportation, markets, schools, and more. People could return to their homes, and infrastructure could be rebuilt. Later, nongovernmental organizations, aid workers, contractors, and the private sector could get involved, improving conditions on the ground and rebooting economic life. Over time, local governance and security forces could be established and developed.

The idea was to deprive insurgents of backing and recruits by demonstrating that civilians fared better without them—and it worked. Eighteen months after the surge began, violence in Iraq had declined by nearly 90 percent, and it declined further until the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from the country in 2011, some three and a half years later. By that point, economic life had returned, and extremist and insurgent recruiting had faltered. Over time, U.S. forces managed to hand security and other responsibilities over to local authorities, allowing American troops to thin out and then withdraw. The situation deteriorated only when the U.S. troop presence vanished completely, and Iraq’s prime minister at the time, the Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki, pursued a highly sectarian agenda.

The surge was necessary in part because the U.S. invasion of Iraq had proceeded without a detailed plan for what would follow the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2003, some American policymakers appeared to believe that U.S. forces could install in power a group of Iraqi exiles who would then lead a democratic transition. Others surmised that a military officer or strongman—anyone but Saddam Hussein or his sons—would step in. Still others refused to think about it at all; whatever emerged, they believed, had little to do with the United States.

All three beliefs proved incorrect. Without U.S. forces imposing security and assuming direct authority, no alternative outside or internal force emerged to do so. And rather than seeing the peaceful, democratic flowering of a people freed of tyrannical rule, Iraq instead sank into a Hobbesian nightmare in which ever-smaller groups fought each other for ever-smaller bits of territory.

Washington had compounded its difficulties by engaging in a sweeping process of “de-Baathification” (without an agreed reconciliation process) and by disbanding the Iraqi army (without announcing plans to provide for personnel and their families until many weeks later). Former senior regime officials and other hard-core supporters of Saddam clearly had no role in the future of Iraq. But de-Baathification and the disbandment of the army removed far too many Iraqis—hundreds of thousands of them—from public life and incentivized them to oppose whatever authority followed Saddam rather than to support and be part of it. The process of wrenching unchecked power from a Sunni minority and bestowing it on a Shiite majority would have produced a violent backlash, no matter the circumstances. Yet these U.S. missteps watered the seeds of insurgency planted earlier and made it highly unlikely that anyone would help American officials run and secure a country they did not sufficiently understand.

Making matters worse, the unanticipated collapse of other Iraqi institutions made it impossible for the United States to carry out a quick hand-off of full authority—even to credible Iraqi partners. Instead, the United States had to maintain responsibility for security while seeking to delegate civilian governance to Iraqis through the Iraqi Governing Council, which was established in 2003. The council represented an alternative to ceding control to existing power bases in Iraq, such as Sunni tribes, Shiite militias, and Kurdish parties and peshmerga security forces in the north. Although the council was composed of many honorable Iraqis and drafted an important interim constitution, it could show few meaningful achievements when it yielded power to a transitional government as the U.S. occupation formally ended, in June 2004. Although further bolstering flawed existing power structures in Iraq would have involved risks and costs, Washington did not fully appreciate the downsides of creating a new, weak institution without historical roots or credibility.

As it seeks governing partners in Gaza, Israel should study the fate of the Iraqi Governing Council. The council’s trajectory suggests the risks of building new, alternative structures and entirely jettisoning the Palestinian Authority instead of seeking to address the PA’s obvious flaws and need for reform. The history of the council also reveals the potential shortcomings of an entity that has only political responsibilities in an environment where the most needed and coveted commodity is security.

Understandably, neither Israel nor Washington wishes to see even a temporary Israeli occupation of Gaza, and both hope that some outside entity—a coalition of Gulf states, for instance, or a revamped Palestinian Authority—will step in and take control. That is improbable in the near term, however, since no outside force is likely to have the willingness or ability to impose security on a territory in chaos. As a result, a short-term period of Israeli authority over Gaza’s security and governance may be unavoidable—and Israelis and Americans should acknowledge this reality, however distasteful. No one wants an Israeli occupation. But for the time being, the only possible alternatives are even worse.

Iraq sank into a Hobbesian nightmare.

Israel should begin planning not only for taking on such responsibilities but also for later handing them off to Palestinians. This will require distinguishing between Hamas fighters dedicated to Israel’s destruction and Palestinians who can live and work peacefully in a post-Hamas Gaza. Tens of thousands of civil servants in Gaza, for instance, remain on the Palestinian Authority payroll and could help administer governance and basic services under a security umbrella provided by the Israeli military (or other forces). To maintain law and order, Israel might need to rely on police officers who until recently reported to Hamas. Over time, Israel could seek to incorporate trustworthy Palestinian forces and bureaucrats, cultivate local non-Hamas elements, invite military forces from the region to play a role, and bring in nongovernmental and international organizations, as well as contractors. But none of this will be possible if the situation on the ground is not secure and stable.

As the United States learned in Iraq after it formally declared itself and its partners an occupying force, there are serious downsides to occupation: massive personnel and infrastructure costs, resistance among the population, and an invitation to insurgents. But in Iraq, Washington compounded its problems by accepting those downsides while not fully meeting its responsibilities as an occupying power: providing security for the population and ensuring the restoration of basic services. That was the worst of both worlds. It made it extremely difficult for moderate Iraqis to work with American occupiers while alienating the population from the occupation authority.

A political-military campaign to eliminate Hamas and prevent its reconstitution, protect innocent civilians, restore basic services, establish a new governing authority, and start the reconstruction of Gaza would be an extraordinarily daunting and costly endeavor. The surge in Iraq required nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops on top of the approximately 135,000 already there, albeit in a country that, in 2007, had a population more than 12 times larger than that of Gaza today. Israel possesses just 15,000 active-duty combat soldiers and is thus heavily reliant on reservists and reserve brigades that are currently under temporary mobilization orders. Some of this force is engaged in operations in the West Bank or in defending the border with Lebanon. Israel’s economic prospects depend on the ability of reservists to return to work, and rebuilding shattered communities—in Israel and in Gaza alike—will cost billions of dollars. Such a campaign will also require extraordinary political capital to sustain. A phased, sequential approach may be necessary; forces might need to secure and stabilize portions of Gaza one after the other, perhaps starting from the north and working their way south a mile or two at a time. It will be a messy, imperfect way forward. But the alternative is indefinite chaos, continued terrorist threats for Israel, and a catastrophic situation for Palestinian civilians who have already suffered a great deal.

TELL THEM HOW THIS ENDS

In drawing parallels between Washington’s post-9/11 wars and Israel’s war in Gaza, some caveats are in order. Gaza is not Iraq. Israel is not the United States. As terrible as the 9/11 attacks were for Americans, in per capita terms, October 7 was many orders of magnitude worse for Israelis. Al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was far from American shores; Hamas’s base in Gaza, in contrast, is right on Israel’s doorstep. The enmity between Israelis and Palestinians runs deep, whereas many Iraqis had mixed, or in some cases positive, feelings toward the U.S.-led coalition when it intervened in March 2003.

But although the details differ, the situations bear strong structural similarities. This observation applies not only to conditions in the conflict zones in the two periods but also to the domestic political contexts in the United States after 9/11 and in Israel in recent months. The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq initially enjoyed broad support; as failures accumulated, however, they became polarizing. Today in Israel, divisions in the emergency war cabinet have erupted in public as international pressure mounts on Israel to limit civilian casualties and identify an endgame in Gaza.

In the American case, whatever success Washington experienced in its post-9/11 wars resulted from a unity of purpose: the integrated efforts of the White House, Congress, military officials and diplomats, intelligence officers, aid workers, and economic planners. Sustaining the level of political support required to carry out strategies such as the surge forced policymakers to lay out a clear desired end-state for their operations. Similarly, unity in Israel will depend on the government’s ability to articulate a realistic vision for Gaza’s future, one in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in the peace and security they deserve. U.S. President Joe Biden is pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do precisely that as part of a cease-fire proposal embraced by the UN Security Council. That proposal would not, however, prevent Hamas from reconstituting itself over the long run—which is the key to sustainable security, stability, and peace.

There are other possibilities. Israel could alter its strategic objective and decide to live alongside a Hamas-run Gaza Strip after all, perhaps concluding, as Biden has, that the group no longer has the ability (at least in the near term) to carry out another attack in the style of October 7. In another scenario, Hamas leaders could choose voluntary exile, abandon Gaza, and cede the territory to an alternative authority. But those possibilities appear less likely today than a continued Israeli effort to destroy Hamas in Gaza and replace it with something new. That, in turn, will require the kind of difficult, resource-intensive strategy that saw success during the U.S. surge in Iraq.

On that front, the international community can play a vital role. In the early days of the war in Iraq, Washington thought it could accomplish regime change without the support or even acquiescence of regional actors. The George W. Bush administration was reluctant to give the UN any meaningful role in Iraq. Those proved grave miscalculations; other countries pursued their interests in Iraq anyway, almost always to the country’s detriment, and the UN later emerged as an important diplomatic partner. As Israel thinks about the future, it may feel indifferent to the opinion of regional or global actors who do not understand the depth of the trauma the country experienced on October 7. But success will not be determined by Israeli action alone, and although outsiders can sometimes impede progress, they can also help.

Americans should be modest about identifying lessons for others in the post-9/11 wars. Washington’s record of regime change in the Middle East is hardly one of unmitigated success. After many years of counterinsurgency efforts, the United States ultimately failed to prevent the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And in Iraq, Washington struggled to sustain hard-won gains after its last combat troops departed and Maliki pursued divisive, sectarian initiatives.

But Israel is relying on American support to defeat Hamas and to find a way forward in Gaza. And although Israel may not want to emulate the American approach in places such as Iraq (even the elements that worked), it should not ignore the valuable lessons it can find in the experiences of its closest ally.

 

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Israel’s War of Regime Change Is Repeating America’s Mistakes

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