Gaza war reminds of history's tactical military victories-turned-strategic defeats

Israel's lack of a meaningful strategy to address Palestinian grievances fosters a perpetual cycle of violence which shows no signs of ending

There is often a tendency to assume tactics can overcome a weak or absent strategy. Al Majalla gives examples of how this has backfired in different conflicts worldwide.
Al Majalla
There is often a tendency to assume tactics can overcome a weak or absent strategy. Al Majalla gives examples of how this has backfired in different conflicts worldwide.

Gaza war reminds of history's tactical military victories-turned-strategic defeats

Wars are messy. Deriving clear lessons from them as a result is a challenging proposition.

Nonetheless, since World War II, there are frequent examples of a truism now seemingly playing out once again in Gaza: powerful nations overwhelming weaker opponents with massive military might but ultimately becoming mired down or even defeated in the extended term because of either a lack of clear strategic goals or the pursuit of unattainable ones.

The power differential involved fuels a hubristic tendency of the strong to focus on short-term tactics and not on the overall ability to achieve a strategic victory in the long run. Often, there is a tendency to conflate tactics with strategy or to assume tactics can overcome a weak or absent strategy.

US Secretary of State Lloyd Austin stressed this point in December when he warned Israel about falling into this trap as it pursues its war on Gaza: “In this kind of a fight, the centre of gravity is the civilian population,” he said. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Israel's defence minister, in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023.

Battle of Algiers

An early example of this applies to the French in Algeria in the 1950s and early 1960s. A brutal war occurred as the French government attempted to hold on to its colony of Algeria in the face of decolonisation efforts by the National Liberation Front (FLN).

In violence brilliantly depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, the French military used brutal and effective tactics, including torture and murder, to undermine the FLN in Algiers in the short term. Ultimately, however, the French approach was strategically bankrupt and failed to stop Algeria from gaining independence in 1962.

There is a tendency to conflate tactics with strategy or to assume tactics can overcome a weak or absent strategy.

US-waged wars offer plentiful lessons

The United States is a prime and repeated example of these axioms around tactics and strategy. Witness its decidedly mixed military record since the 1960s. It heavily intervened in Vietnam to support South Vietnam against the Communist North.

In doing so, American forces brought unprecedented military power to bear against the North, including dropping double the tonnage of bombs on Vietnam that fell in all of World War II. It also initiated tactics that would become widespread during the War on Terror.

Through the CIA-designed Phoenix Programme, tens of thousands of real and suspected Viet Cong guerrillas were tortured and assassinated. Tactically a success at weakening the Communist insurgency operating in South Vietnam, it still brought the Americans no closer to winning the war.

Three million Vietnamese ultimately lost their lives in a conflict that the United States ultimately failed in despite its military and economic supremacy.

Read more: Henry Kissinger, US foreign policy titan, dies at 100

Soon after Vietnam, Afghanistan became a new centre of tactical victory, giving way to strategic defeat.

First up was the Soviet Union, which invaded on December 24, 1979, to assert greater control over what it saw as a client state. Through the power of its superpower military, the Soviets quickly toppled the Afghan government, imposed a more loyal leader, and occupied the capital of Kabul and other major urban centres.

Plans for a short campaign gave way to a protracted conflict against the Mujahideen as the Soviets failed to exercise control over wide swathes of the Afghanistan countryside despite the deployment of its overwhelming military might. Moscow withdrew its final troops in February 1989.

Round two for Afghanistan would involve the United States and several of its NATO allies in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Toppling the Taliban government through military force and weakening the al-Qaeda presence in the country were accomplished quickly.

However, achieving a strategic victory by destroying the Taliban as a viable power and building a stable and democratic Afghanistan state proved unachievable despite the involvement of the world's most advanced militaries and the spending of over $2tn. The Taliban returned to power victorious in August 2021, and the Americans left as the Soviets had before them.

A US Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021. Rockets were fired at Kabul's airport on August 30, where US troops were racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Read more: Nearly two years after Taliban takeover, Afghans say they are tired and scared

Tens of thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas were tortured and killed which was a tactical success that weakened the Communist insurgency operating in South Vietnam, but it still brought the US no closer to winning the war.

Contrasting lessons

The first and second wars between the US, its allies, and Iraq offer contrasting lessons on the relationship between tactics and strategy.

The Gulf War in 1991 had a narrow strategic goal, which the tactics deployed fed effectively into the use of overwhelming military might to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which had been invaded in August 1990. There was no desire to remake the political system in Kuwait or to march on Baghdad, topple President Saddam Hussein from power, and occupy Iraq.

The second war with Iraq in 2003 had a much more ambitious agenda: not only the removal of Saddam and his Baathist regime but a remaking of Iraq into a Western-style democracy with free and fair elections.

Tactical victory by America and its allies was achieved in only weeks, but strategically, the conflict proved a disaster.

U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, in this file photo from April 9, 2003.

An insurgency erupted, as did a sectarian civil war. The ongoing violence and disorder eventually spawned the Islamic State (IS) and even greater instability, including hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions.

Disorder and security issues remain with the United States carrying out an assassination of an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad on 4 January 2024.  

Read more: Iraq and Iran come under renewed attack as they commemorate their slain leaders

The global war on terror

The tactics first used by the Americans in Vietnam became a primary weapon in its pursuit of al-Qaeda in the so-called War on Terror.

The tactics, particularly drone strikes, proved effective against al-Qaeda, especially its leadership. However, the initial American strategic goal of ending global terrorism, not surprisingly, proved unattainable.

More limited success was achieved against al-Qaeda, although it remains as an existing entity albeit a weakened one. And the success against al-Qaeda was undermined by failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and combined led to more than double the number of Americans deaths then occurred on September 11.

In 2003, tactical victory by America and its allies in Iraq was achieved in only weeks, but strategically, the conflict proved a disaster.

Israel's war on Gaza

Thus, it is with Gaza. Israel has the power to devastate the territory and is in the process of rendering wide swathes of it uninhabitable along with killing tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Read more: A look at Israel's AI-generated 'mass assassination factory' in Gaza

In the past, Israeli officials referred to the need to occasionally "mow the lawn" in Gaza, rhetoric that would later be echoed by some Americans in relation to the War on Terror.

By using this dehumanising language, those invoking the analogy meant using military force to inflict pain on opponents who had grown to a threat level sufficient to require cutting back. This was always a tactic and not a strategy since it never addressed the root causes of the resistance.

Israel's current approach to Gaza seems to be expanding from mowing lawns to tearing up the turf and salting the earth underneath.

In the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, a critical reflection on the occupation of Palestinian lands, a former head of Shin Bet, the internal Israeli security agency, lamented that in dealing with the Palestinian resistance, "there was no strategy, just tactics."

And so, it continues. Israel has an abundance of tactics but an absence of a meaningful strategy to address Palestinian grievances. The result is a perpetual cycle of violence that has gone on for decades and which shows no prospect of ending.

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