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IDF Not Big On Nation Building

An interesting topic came up in a discussion I recently had with RAND’s Russell Glenn, a retired Army officer who studies urban warfare and counterinsurgency, and wrote a book on lessons from the 2006 Lebanon war. Apparently the Israeli Defense Forces don’t do nation building. Building governance, providing humanitarian relief and other “stability operations” that have become part and parcel of U.S. military missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, are not the purview of the Israeli military, in fact Israeli government policy precludes the IDF from performing those tasks.

Glenn forwarded me a write up of a conference he attended last year, put on by the Israeli Armor Corps Association, where the topic for discussion was land maneuver in the 21st century, in light of the 2006 Lebanon war, the intifada, and ongoing U.S. military operations. Conference participants from the U.S., Canada and the U.K., discussed expanding the definition of “maneuver,” from the traditional fire and movement, to include non-lethal efforts to favorably leverage the population when militaries are engaged in counterinsurgency and stability operations, what conference participant retired British Gen. Rupert Smith calls, “war amongst the people.”

The IDF, by contrast, has little interest in expanding the traditional understanding of maneuver warfare. Retired IDF Brig. Gen. Gideon Avidor explained why the IDF approach to security challenges in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon remains almost entirely the use of force and why IDF commanders are not expected to look beyond traditional military tasks. First, the U.S., Canada and the U.K. use their militaries for reasons other than national survival, deploying them to failed states to perform stability operations where they must be adept not only at fighting, but also providing aid, building government capacity and other tasks. In contrast, Israel suffers more “intimate” challenges to its survival, Avidor said. The IDF rarely deploys beyond the country’s boundaries and when it does its operations are limited to the immediate environs. Second, that the IDF not take on tasks associated with stability operations is a political dictate, Avidor said. The Israeli government directs the IDF to “restrict its activities to those related to the use of force or threat of use.”

That political directive is a far cry from the one given the U.S. military. In 2005, DoD Directive 3000.5 established stability operations as a core military mission on par with combat operations. The directive states that if civilian agencies are unavailable, it falls to the military to: rebuild host-nation institutions, revive or build the private sector and develop representative government institutions.

That tall order has caused considerable angst among some officers who prefer the traditional military tasks of fire and maneuver. In a new piece up on the Foreign Policy web site, the recurring voice in the stability ops pushback, Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, once again argues that the Army is setting itself for serious trouble down the road by focusing too much on nation building. “The Army must organize itself around the principle of fighting with the knowledge that if called on, it can easily shift to nation-building and counterinsurgency, as it has done in Iraq. But doing the opposite -- building an Army that is great at building schools and negotiating with tribal sheikhs but is unprepared to fight at the higher end of the conflict spectrum -- will only ensure that most of the blood and guts will be ours.”

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