Fourth Generation War
in Lebanon

Hezbollah, by kidnapping two and killing several Israeli soldiers, has drawn a forceful response from the Jewish state. One perspective is that the Islamist organization was surprised by the ferocity of that response. It can also be argued that such intensity only fulfills the objective of Hezbollah to create an imbroglio for Israel in Lebanon – an objective based on a combination of the Maoist conception of "perpetual revolution" and "fourth generation war," a notion developed by William Lind.

Hezbollah’s maverick leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is a man who likes to read biographies of world leaders and leaders from his archenemy, Israel. So, one should not be surprised if he has read Mao’s biography and his thinking on the perpetual revolution that drove his Cultural Revolution, as well as the growing literature on fourth generation war and its utility for Hezbollah’s war with Israel. By the same token, he might also have studied the fourth generation war-related tactics used by al-Qaeda and Musab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

The underlying logic of the perpetual revolution is that, by creating chaos, its architect might be able to extract his version of order. One can argue ad infinitum whether Mao succeeded in achieving that goal during his Cultural Revolution; however, the idea lingers among contemporary revolutionaries and iconoclasts, including those whom the Bush administration likes to label as "terrorists."

Fourth generation war involves a non-state actor as one of the participants, especially an actor who uses violence justified on the basis of an ideology to wage war. As Lind describes it, "In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing." The technologically weak actor uses tactics – including psychological warfare – "to weaken the technologically advantaged opponent’s will to win."

Nasrallah’s version of the perpetual revolution seems to be that, through the use of fourth generation warfare, he would extract a disproportionate response from Israel. The chaos emanating from that response greatly favors Hezbollah, in the sense that it diminishes Israel’s capability to control events.

There is a suspicion that Hezbollah did not anticipate Israel would react so strongly. Now that suspicion is confirmed through an interview that Nasrallah gave to al-Manar, his organization’s television network. His calculation was that there would be an agreement with Israel for the exchange of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, which the military wing of Hamas has also been demanding. Israel has exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah in the past.

In terms of their capabilities to wage a conventional war, there is no comparison between Israel and Hezbollah. They are not in the same category. One is a nation-state and the other is not. However, Hezbollah has two weapons. First, it has the political will to take on Israel. Second, the specifics of "victory" for Israel and Hezbollah related to this round of conflict are starkly different. For Israel, victory means dismantling Hezbollah. For Hezbollah, total victory means forcing Israel to fulfill its demands. In the absence of that outcome, there is still some victory in survival, even if Hezbollah’s organizational structure, as well its political and military capabilities, are considerably reduced. It can always reemerge from the ruins of defeat and challenge the mighty Israel another day.

The political will of Hezbollah is most worrisome for Israel. As the chief recipient of America’s cutting-edge military technology, and as a possessor of its own impressive military-industrial complex, Israel is rightly perceived as a military superpower in the Middle East. What is more important is that it also has established a reputation of using disproportionate military responses to all sizes of military attacks from Arab states.

The list of those disproportionate responses is much too long to enumerate. Just look at what Israel did to the combined armed strength of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the 1967 war. The entire scope of the Arab-Israeli conflict changed, it seems, forever. The Arab states never forgot the humiliating defeat of their armed forces in the 1967 war. Consequently, there never really emerged an "Arab spirit of adventurism" that could challenge Israel on the battlefield.

Even the late Anwar Sadat’s decision to start the 1973 war (which Israel calls the "Yom Kippur War" and Arabs call the "Ramadan War" since it was waged during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) had a very limited purpose, as it turned out. Sadat really wanted to liberate the Egyptian territory lost in the 1967 war from Israeli occupation.

The post-9/11 era created an environment that appeared quite conducive to fourth generation war, as the Islamists see it. The rationale, once again, is to get the United States involved in as many military theaters in the world of Islam as possible. As the practitioners of fourth generation war envision, they have a perceptible advantage over the United States for the following reasons, all of which are essential ingredients of fourth generation war. Lind might not have included them in his writing, but these characteristics are emerging as the chief features of fourth generation war.

First, there is no such thing as an infinite capability of the United States to occupy many Muslim countries. The Islamists might be right about that reality. The Bush administration is in the process of reducing its force presence in Afghanistan by transferring most of its peacekeeping-related responsibilities to NATO’s ISAF forces, and prefers to remain focused on eradicating the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Once that mission is accomplished, or even reaches a politically acceptable level, the U.S. will be out of Afghanistan.

Second, and a related point, is that there is not an infinite political willingness in the United States to remain as an occupying force in a Muslim country. The Islamists might also be right in arriving at that conclusion. Iraq, more than Afghanistan, is proving that reality. The pressure is growing on the Bush administration inside the United States to declare the modalities and timetable of its "exit strategy."

Third, America’s capability to absorb casualties on the battlefield is also very limited, while the Islamists are more than willing, it seems, to absorb a disproportionately high number of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamist jihadists know that in both of those countries there is intense competition between their forces and the United States regarding "the will to endure and prevail."

Applying these variables to Hezbollah’s approach to fourth generation war, it seems that there is not that much difference between American and Israeli thinking and behavior, as Hezbollah might have calculated it.

First, Israel may seek to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure as a "punishment" for the government of Lebanon for not controlling Hezbollah. However, that very act has not only boosted the popularity of Hezbollah in the Arab world, but has also escalated by leaps and bounds Hezbollah’s maneuverability within Lebanon. An already weak Lebanese government has become almost a nonentity in terms of its capacity to force Hezbollah to do anything against its will.

Second, the increasing political chaos in Lebanon is likely to bring additional Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda, to that country. Right now, there is little possibility of any collaboration between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, since they have acute theological differences. However, no one can rule out the possibility of cooperation if Lebanon degenerates into a lawless place like Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel would be as powerless in controlling the dynamics of lawlessness in Lebanon as the U.S. has been in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Third, Israel will have to think long and hard about invading and occupying Lebanon as an option to create a "friendly" government there. Its 1982 invasion is not a shining example of success in terms of Israel’s aspirations to make a client state out of Lebanon.

Fourth, while Israel is destroying the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, it is also willing to accept a cease-fire. It knows that such an option would be the best possibility of disarming Hezbollah. Hezbollah, on the contrary, is not interested in such an arrangement, knowing full well that there will be a lot of international pressure for disarming, indeed, dismantling it.

However, the current state of power distribution in Lebanon decisively favors Hezbollah’s maintaining its political status and visibility. Its current strategy seems to be to continue firing Katyusha rockets. It already fired C-802 Silkworm cruise missiles on an Israeli ship last week. That missile has an anti-jamming capability. No one really knows what other capabilities Hezbollah has in store. Considering that, according to reports, Hezbollah has Iranian-made Fajr (range: 30 mi.) and even Zalzal (range: 125 mi.) missiles, Israeli leaders have to worry about the possibility of missiles reaching Tel Aviv.

Hezbollah is likely to sustain the tempo of its missile assault on Israel and still seek indirect negotiations. It knows it cannot score a victory on the battlefield. All it seeks is an Israeli willingness to say "yes" to a prisoner exchange. In the context of fourth generation war, it would depict that outcome as its "profound victory," in the sense that such a potential outcome would not radically alter the chances of its survival in Lebanon.

The best solution for this conflict from the Israeli point of view would be the emergence of a comprehensive political package that would disarm Hezbollah and station Lebanese forces on the Lebanon-Israeli border. Israel knows that no international demands will be made for it to pay compensation for the damage it has inflicted on Lebanon. The Americans, as usual, will protect it from such demands.

The best solution from Hezbollah’s perspective would be an acceptance of a cease-fire by Israel and the exchange of prisoners (the frequently talked about number is 10,000 – mostly Palestinians and a few Lebanese – incarcerated in Israeli prisons) and hostages from both sides. Given the acute political weakness of the Arab side in this unipolar world, the chances of the emergence of Hezbollah’s preferred solution are minimal. That is why it will continue to look at fourth generation war against Israel as an option, and why guerrilla warfare will not disappear from Lebanon anytime soon.

Read more by Ehsan Ahrari