Oct 29, 2023

Gen. David Petraeus and historian Andrew Roberts: The huge challenge facing Israel, CNN.com

By Peter Bergen, CNN 18 minute read Updated 7:37 AM EDT, Mon October 23, 2023 Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN. CNN — Two leading experts on warfare say the Gaza war may be more challenging than any of the conflicts they have examined since 1945. General David Petraeus, one of the most prominent practitioners of warfare, and Lord Andrew Roberts, an eminent historian of war, have written a new book, “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine.” It’s an insightful and thorough examination of key military conflicts over the past seven and a half decades. The book was published as the conflict between Hamas and Israel entered its second week. Petraeus and Roberts provided a sobering assessment of the challenge facing the Israeli military in trying to eliminate Hamas after its October 7 terrorist attack on southern Israel killed more than 1,400 people. They emphasized that policymakers who do not have a good plan for the “day after” the fighting stops are simply seeding the ground for the next conflict, which in the case of Gaza necessitates some kind of positive vision for what the Palestinians can expect when the guns fall silent. I interviewed Petraeus and Roberts for the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen.” Our discussion was edited for length and clarity. PETER BERGEN: How might this war unfold? DAVID PETRAEUS: Israel’s big idea right now is to destroy Hamas, which means rendering the enemy incapable of accomplishing its mission without reconstitution. As a military commander, that means not just a lot of as-precise-as-possible airstrikes, but at some point, you have to go in on the ground, clear every building, every floor, every room, every basement, every tunnel — part of a very extensive tunnel system — against terrorists who know this place better than the backs of their hands, have demonstrated significant tactical creativity, and have shown a willingness to blow themselves up to take Israeli soldiers with them. We can’t envision a more challenging context for a military commander and soldiers than this one. David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts And by the way, you not only have to clear every building like that, but you also must then retain each building by leaving a substantial force behind, one that’s large enough that it can’t be swarmed by the enemy who can then add captured soldiers as hostages to the over 200 hostages that have already been taken. And, of course, this will all be done in a densely populated area with substantial numbers of civilians — even with hundreds of thousands of people — leaving Gaza City and northern Gaza. Andrew and I have gone back through all these conflicts that we recount from 1945 until now, and we can’t envision a more challenging context for a military commander and soldiers than this one. The big idea in the past was described as “mowing the grass.” Hamas would do something particularly egregious. Israel would make a limited incursion — use a lot of air power, drone strikes and so forth to “mow the grass” to damage Hamas, its organization, and its infrastructure. And then Israelis would enjoy a few years of relative peace. Clearly, that approach has been invalidated. But if you go in and say you mow the grass all the way down to the dirt — you can even pull the grass out — if you don’t have an answer to the question of “then what” that is reasonable and that can keep Hamas and Islamic Jihad from coming back, you’ll have mowed the grass, and perhaps it doesn’t grow back for a few years but eventually, it will, and the Israelis are going to be back in the situation that they were in before that horrific attack two weeks ago. BERGEN: Some of the other obstacles that the Israelis will likely encounter in Gaza: Hostages, human shields, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, booby traps, snipers and fighters not in uniform. And Hamas has had years to prepare. PETRAEUS: Also, a lot of civilians, in addition to hostages. It’s hard to imagine anything more challenging than this, and that’s especially true if there is a push to do this rapidly. BERGEN: The fight against ISIS in Mosul that began in late 2016, the second largest city in Iraq, seems like an interesting analogue to what may unfold in Gaza: Mosul was a city of two million people that ISIS took over and had plenty of time to dig in, its foot soldiers were willing to fight to the death. How long did it take the Iraqi military assisted by American advisers and US airpower to remove ISIS from Mosul? PETRAEUS: Over nine months. Longer if you just take the period of planning, the positioning of forces, and the setting of conditions for the attack, and that was with considerable American support — what we call “advise, assist, and enable,” the enabling including lots of drones and precision munitions. And also, a lot of situational awareness from American intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms that we could put over the fighting. We had an American officer in Iraqi command posts with Iraqi commanders, literally watching the same screen, watching our drone “feed,” so that they could make decisions together. They could call on American air power, precision surface-to-surface munitions, and so forth. BERGEN: It still took nine months. PETRAEUS: Exactly right. And by the way, Mosul’s population wasn’t two million at that time. Hundreds of thousands of civilians had left. It was certainly roughly the same size of Gaza, but not with the same number of high-rises that you find in Gaza. . BERGEN: Two of the Israeli goals seem incompatible — destroy Hamas completely and try and rescue the 200-plus hostages. PETRAEUS: It will be very challenging to accomplish both those objectives. And then beyond that, how to administer Gaza after the conflict is over? Not just handing out humanitarian assistance and rebuilding and reestablishing markets and schools and so forth, but also conducting a counterinsurgency campaign to ensure that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad can’t come back. And of course, a vision for the Palestinian people of what life can be like when Hamas is dismantled has to be part of this effort as well. A Regional Conflict? ANDREW ROBERTS: It’s also worth pointing out, of course, that you’ve got to do all of this in a situation where you don’t know what Iran will do next. You don’t know what Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is going to do next. The West Bank front could open up at any moment. A large number of Israeli reservists, 360,000, has been called up but if you’re suddenly fighting on multiple fronts, that force gets dissipated. BERGEN: General Petraeus, you were CENTCOM commander. Your area of operation included all the countries around Israel with some kind of alignment with Iran, the Houthis in Yemen who are backed by Iran, Iranian-backed militias have a presence in Iraq, Syria is strongly backed by Iran, Hezbollah is effectively an arm of the Iranian government in Lebanon and Hamas itself has Iranian support. So, when you look at all that, what do you think? PETRAEUS: I think it is enormously challenging, and it could get worse. There could be regionalization of the war in a way that would be very, very serious. You can assess that Hezbollah doesn’t want to revisit the war it fought with Israel in 2006 and the damage and destruction inflicted on Hezbollah in the wake of their incursion into Israel. But Iran may push them that way, and so could public sentiment in the Shia areas in the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets, so they are not a little militia force. That number of rockets could overwhelm Israel’s air defense system. But then, Israel would be compelled to respond with devastating strikes. And Hezbollah knows that. Hopefully, that knowledge will dissuade them from conducting substantial attacks on Israel. BERGEN: If this invasion happens, the pictures of destruction will just go on and on and on. The images are going to inflame the Arab world. PETRAEUS: The amount of battlefield imagery is a much more prominent element in conflict now than it was even 10, 15 years ago when I was privileged to command in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is, of course, because of the widespread present proliferation of social media sites, some of which are really siloes for one view or another, the proliferation of smart phones, access to the internet, and social media onto which individuals can upload videos, but that are not always obviously reporting truthfully. It is also because of the greater presence of commercial imagery and other forms of open-source intelligence. BERGEN: Would pressure on Hezbollah to mount a large-scale attack increase as weeks go on and more pictures of destruction come out of Gaza? PETRAEUS: It certainly could. So, the periods after Friday prayers will become more challenging in Muslim countries in the region, and also in Israel. This was often a challenge in Iraq when I was in command there: If there was some issue that arose that aroused the people, then tragically, it would often be amplified by the mullahs of different mosques in their Friday sermons and the resulting demonstrations could be very problematic. Surprise attacks BERGEN: There are a couple of big themes in your book that I want to draw out. Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense, kept a maxim in his office which said, “The easiest way to achieve complete strategic surprise is to commit an act that makes no sense or is even self-destructive.” Yet you say, “surprise attacks are surprisingly common.” I found it fascinating that you found that dictatorships and terrorist groups are much more likely to launch surprise attacks because democracies must build consensus, which can take time. They can’t just launch a war without the political support of their people. ROBERTS: It tends to be authoritarian or totalitarian powers that launch these surprise attacks. What we discovered, again and again, is that — and which I think, by the way, will also be the case here with the Gazan situation — is the response of the country that’s been attacked is all the more outraged for having been the victim of a surprise attack. Look at America after Pearl Harbor. There was a sort of righteous fury that grabbed the nation and held it for four years until the US defeated Japan. The country that’s been attacked is all the more outraged for having been the victim of a surprise attack. Andrew Roberts PETRAEUS: Same after 9/11, of course. Now, interestingly, President Joe Biden, in addition to expressing America’s big idea, which is to have Israel’s back absolutely, also offered a caution to the Israelis about what followed 9/11, acknowledging that we didn’t get everything right, that the quest for vengeance can lead you to take actions that, in some respects, you might look back and say we’d like to have a redo of this or that. ROBERTS: Well, partly, I think that’s because, especially in response to surprise attacks, it’s very difficult to promote a compromise solution if you’ve just been attacked, let alone attacked in this medieval and sadistic way that Hamas has attacked in southern Israel. So, to get into the sort of frame of mind where you are offering something to the enemy requires an extraordinary degree of statesmanship that is often not present when you’re the victim of a surprise attack. BERGEN: The 1973 Yom Kippur War, you cover in some detail in the book. What are the parallels with this war that Hamas has unleashed? ROBERTS: The Yom Kippur War started with an Arab surprise attack and ended with a catastrophe for the Arab armies, so hopefully, there are some direct parallels with history in this latest Hamas attack. The Israeli army was within sight of Damascus and was only a few days away from Cairo when peace broke out in 1973. So, there is a tremendous capacity in the IDF for taking the punches and returning them with vigor, which I’m assuming will be the case when it comes to Hamas. Securing Gaza BERGEN: In 2005, the Israelis pulled out of Gaza, and elections were held which Hamas then won, and there have been no elections since. Israel doesn’t seem to want to own the Gaza problem. PETRAEUS: They do not want to, and also they can’t bring in the Palestinian Authority (the overarching Palestinian entity based in Israel’s West Bank) on the backs of Israeli tanks. BERGEN: In your book, you say that to secure any kind of area, as a rule of thumb, you need one security person per 50 inhabitants. There are some two million inhabitants of Gaza, which would suggest you need around 40,000 security personnel to secure Gaza. And if the Israelis aren’t going to secure it, who is? PETRAEUS: You’ve raised a very good point; whatever interim international authority might be established in Gaza will not just have to distribute humanitarian assistance, restore basic services, repair damaged infrastructure, reopen markets, schools, clinics and hospitals, and restore all the social services that Hamas’ political wing have overseen. The interim authority is also going to have to conduct a counterinsurgency operation with a hard edge, with very good intelligence capabilities, because there will be remnants of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and they will try to reestablish control in Gaza. That has to be prevented. I don’t know that 40,000 security personnel will be necessary in this particular case, but certainly, it will be a substantial force – and I would err on the side of larger rather than smaller. BERGEN: Another one of the big themes that I took away from the book is, again and again, policymakers often have no real plan for the “day after” the fighting stops. PETRAEUS: There was an episode when I was a two-star general and commander of the great 101st Airborne Division in the early days of the fight to Baghdad, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where we were ordered to take the city of Najaf, a city of about 400,000-500,000 people then, and the holiest city in Shia Islam. After several days of fighting, the enemy collapsed and melted away. We took control of the city, and I go on the radio. I called my boss and said, “Hey, boss, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that we own Najaf.” He asked, “What’s the bad news?” I replied, “We own Najaf. What do you want us to do with it?” And so, I hope that some weeks, months down the road, there’s not a call that’s made, “Hey, boss, I got good news and bad news. We own Gaza City or all of Gaza. What do you want us to do with it?” There has to be a viable plan for the day after. ROBERTS: The Malayan Emergency of 1952 to ’60 is a very good example of where the big idea was got right, not just “clear and hold,” but also the fact that the commander there, Sir Gerald Templer, offered the Malaysian people their independence pretty much from the beginning as they fought a communist insurgency. And so that helped capture their “hearts and minds.” That was where the original phrase came from; winning the “hearts and minds” of the local population was essential in putting down the local communist insurgency. So, they got the population on side, which was essential, defeated the communists and independence was given in 1957. I don’t know how that would translate into the present Gazan situation, but there has to be something that the people on the ground can really look forward to, something positive. A positive vison for the Palestinians PETRAEUS: There has to be a positive vision for the Palestinian people that life will be much better if Hamas is eliminated and out of their lives and that the international community will support them. BERGEN: But the Israeli government has little to no credibility with the Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t have much credibility either because they’re in the West Bank, and they’re seen as almost collaborators with Israel by the folks in Gaza. PETRAEUS: And by the folks in the West Bank, in many cases, too. It couldn’t be more difficult. Andrew uses the phrase “fiendishly difficult,” and that is correct. You can’t just say that you’re going to destroy Hamas. You also must lay out the vision for the Palestinian people and the future of Gaza. David Petraeus BERGEN: So, if you were advising Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today from a military point of view, general, what would you advise, and Andrew, from a political point of view, what would you advise? PETRAEUS: Well, what’s interesting is I think you must combine the two. You can’t just say that you’re going to destroy Hamas. You also must lay out the vision for the Palestinian people and the future of Gaza. And this will be challenging because there will be a vision announced, I hope, but there’s also going to be a substantial loss of innocent civilian life and very substantial damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilian dwellings. Israel’s advantages ROBERTS: The last chapter of our book is “The Future of War,” and we look at cyber and sensors and space, AI, robotics, and also, of course, drones. And this is one area where the Israelis will have an advantage. BERGEN: Well, let’s talk about some Israeli potential advantages. You mentioned robots. Also infrared and acoustic tools that might be able to look down into tunnels and armored bulldozers. What about morale? Morale is a major theme of your book. Whether it’s the Ukrainians fighting the Russians or Israelis volunteering to fight today. It’s a nebulous concept on some levels, but how important is it? ROBERTS: Morale is absolutely central to warfare. We came across this again and again in the course of writing this book. It’s a very interesting thing when demoralization can take place and how it can take place. But if you’ve got morale, it is “worth several divisions,” as Napoleon always used to say. PETRAEUS: You’ve had a barbaric, horrific, unspeakable set of actions that killed some 1,400 Israelis, and to put that in perspective, from a US point of view, that’s the equivalent of more than 50,000 Americans having been killed on 9/11, as opposed to the 3,000 terrible losses that we sustained. And the over 200 hostages are the equivalent of well over 6,000 Americans being taken hostage on that day. And I think we are not fully appreciating the impact of all this on the Israeli people and government. The Israelis have enormous morale. When they were called up, members of the reserves literally drove their own vehicles down to southern Israel. And they just parked their cars on the side of the road and reported for duty. But that also does raise yet one more challenge. The bulk of this force is reservists. They’re not serving professionals or on active duty. Some will have done recent active duty or perhaps a lot of reserve duty but by no means all, and I’m sure that there are those in the ranks who are a bit more advanced in age than the typical 19-year-old infantry soldier. So, they’ve got to be brought back in, reequipped, introduced to the more cutting-edge technology, say, night vision goggles and close combat optics on weapons that are very, very important so that you can have a precise fire, not just “spray and pray.” So, all of this has to be done as well. You have to reorganize, re-equip and retrain to some degree. At the very least, they’ve got to get whatever weapon systems they have now and get reacquainted with that and do drills with their fellow soldiers as units. BERGEN: And, of course, reservists are people who’ve got day jobs in the Israeli economy. If this continues for a long time, you have social, political, and economic effects inside Israel. PETRAEUS: In this case, there are multiple clocks running, but one of those is the domestic economy clock, that if you call up 360,000 out of a population that’s around 10 million, obviously there’s an enormous impact on the economy. Beyond that, the policy makers have essentially taken the slack out of the trigger, and there will be pressure to squeeze, perhaps sooner rather than later, because of the imperative of getting on with this. But that should be tempered with a recognition that urban operations need to be pursued in a deliberate, methodical, careful manner. BERGEN: General Petraeus you famously said close to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, “Tell me how this ends.” How does this Gaza war end? PETRAEUS: It depends on the conduct of the campaign. Can they fully clear, hold and then start the rebuilding? Are they able to identify, in particular, a true vision for the Palestinian people that is inspiring to them? “Inspiring” might be a bit of a high bar, but let’s use this moment as a catalyst — this horrible, despicable, unspeakable set of barbaric murders — to try to communicate a vision for the future that can reduce grievances in the future, noting that nothing can conceivably justify the atrocities committed by Hamas. ROBERTS: One thing that we can be certain of, though, in all this uncertainty is that if Israel doesn’t destroy Hamas, or if it fails to, then we know how this ends, because it ends with an organization which, in the next generation, will do exactly the same thing to Israelis, will continue to kill Jews. BERGEN: General Petraeus, you’re a former director of the CIA. After October 7th, we’ve heard a lot about intelligence failures. The question is, when we get further away from this, do you suspect that it will be seen as mostly a policy failure, misunderstanding Hamas’ aims, having kind of a too-rosy view of Hamas and so ignoring intelligence that might have been germane? PETRAEUS: I think this was a real intelligence failure, and I think it was also a military readiness failure. My speculation is that Hamas dramatically improved its operational security and prevented Israel from developing the understanding of the extremists’ intentions well before they materialized as terrorist operations. I think this was a real intelligence failure, and I think it was also a military readiness failure. David Petraeus I think we’ll come to understand better how creative Hamas was in using all kinds of ways to get into Israel — paragliders as well as bulldozers and golf carts. But in advance of that, they blinded the surveillance systems along the wall by taking out the communication nodes that connect those observation systems to command posts that are monitoring those systems, and so there was an overreliance on technology. And that technology was blinded at a critical moment. BERGEN: What about the US “pivot to Asia?” Is that sort of dead now? PETRAEUS: No. The primary focus of the US overall, especially the military of the US, is rightly the Indo-Pacific region, and the situation in the Mideast doesn’t detract from that. I have long felt that the term “pivot” was not very helpful—because it implies that you’re pivoting away from something, and the more accurate term — and the one that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used to use — was the “rebalance” to Asia, and that’s what we should have been saying that we were doing. I always also thought that it was unwise to try to leave the Middle East to the extent that we have tried, and I think we should retain a substantial force there. BERGEN: It turns out that getting out of the Middle East is something almost every recent American president wants to do, but it never really happens.