Even for those of us who understand the political and strategic logic behind Israel’s robust response to Hezbollah attacks over the last week and a half, there is a serious argument that Israel is on the cusp of going too far–if it has not done so already. This is for a very practical reason. The military benefits of striking out against Hezbollah are quickly diminishing because of the inherent limitations of airpower (and large-bore artillery) in irregular warfare. With known command centers, weapons caches, and launching pads for large-bore rockets already in cinders, few lucrative targets remain after 2,000 Israeli air sorties. As such, the benefits to be gained by striking at Hezbollah are diminishing quickly. When compared with the consequences of inadvertently killing civilians and destroying economic infrastructure–and thereby giving Hezbollah a recruiting cry as well as potentially unifying most of Lebanon and the broader Arab and Persian world behind this aggessive organization–it is highly doubtful that many more Israeli atttacks make sense.
This is not just theoretical argument. Recent history backs it up too. In the 1999 Kosovo war, NATO’s aggregate air forces could not substantially weaken a few tens of thousands of Serbs ethnically cleansing one part of their country of its majority ethnic Albanian population. To be sure, we thought we were being effective against Serb weaponry at times, but after the conflict we realized that actual damage to artillery and other weapons was 1/5 to 1/10 what we had sometimes hoped. And that war was won only after NATO stepped up the pressure on Belgrade in other ways–through direct aerial attacks on the capital of Serbia, as well as at least the hint of a possible ground invasion. In Afghanistan, US airpower helped defeat the Taliban–but as military expert Steve Biddle has convincingly argued, it did so only with the substantial support of the Northern Alliance on the ground (itself aided by US CIA and special forces operatives). In Iraq today, despite the vigorous use of airpower, and occasional successes such as the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 7 (not to mention the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops as well as many Iraqi forces), the insurgency is no weaker today than it was in 2003. Airpower is a very blunt instrument of military power in this kind of fighting.
Israel may itself recognize the validity of the above line of reasoning given all the recent conjecture that it is contemplating a ground incursion into Lebanon. The strategic implications of any such decision to invade would be huge and quite possibly counterproductive for the Jewish state. But regardless, the flip side of this debate is that airpower rarely does as much as we think against guerrillas or terrorists hidden within a friendly population. Irrespective of what it decides about the ground invasion, Israel should probably ratchet back the air attacks drastically very soon.