Know Thy Partner

by September 2021
Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson, attends a change of command ceremony in Kabul, 2016. Photo credit: REUTERS/Rahmat Gul

Sun Tzu summed it up neatly when he spoke about knowing oneself and knowing one’s enemy. Like most truisms, this one is less complex than reality. The landscapes of war and conflict are also populated by partners, and a failure to know what they need can be costly. Israel found this out, to its chagrin, in Lebanon and elsewhere. Most recently, the lesson was learned—not for the first time—by the US in Afghanistan. At issue—in terms of the work of intelligence services—is a version of an ancient question, this time a Roman warning: Who is assessing the assessors—and what happens when one is too close to the subject of the assessment. 

>> Inside Intelligence: Read more from Amir Oren

As it happens, military staff assessment of partners tends to fall into a historical crack. The classic division of labor in military staffs, from the 19th century onward, has emphasized staff officers’ duty to help their chief, the commander, by being his extensions. The commander cannot be everywhere constantly. He should not be deluged by minor details, and he should be both up-to-date and free to concentrate on strategic issues. In the Western model now common, at all levels—from field units to high command—a traditional order holds. 1 is for Personnel, which used to be called manpower when there were mostly men in uniform. 2 is for Intelligence, hence G-2 and the Deuxieme Bureau. 3 is for Operations, and 4 is for Logistics or Materiel.

Operations—3—had been and may still be the most senior branch: The essence of any military formation is the action it produces per the commander’s order. Personnel and logistics are resources to be generated, maintained, and adapted to the relevant missions. Data about these must be collated and presented to the decision makers, lest they err and either think they do not have enough or overextend themselves without the reserves they were led to believe they had; hence the first part of Sun Tzu’s dictum.  

The consequences of failure in this respect can be  strategic. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel—based on its lightning success in 1967—complacently stocked up for less than a week’s worth of fighting. When it turned out that the war would be much longer, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was desperate for reinforcements, begging Washington for F-4 Phantom fighter bombers (by the war’s end, it had some 100 fighter bombers, but only 70 aircrew to fly them), tanks, and artillery shells. As for the latter, however, the IDF failed to realize there were enough of them between storage facilities and the front: The false impression led to panic and diplomatic disadvantage. “Know thyself” failed in a relatively simple, quantitative measure, in addition to the difficult qualitative ones.

“Know thy enemy” used to be a secondary mission, and therein lies a sad lesson. In the British model, emulated by the IDF in 1948, G-3 was the leading branch, whose chief was the de facto number 2 after the chief of general staff and who filled in for him during any long absences for health reasons. Intelligence was a mere department within the Operations branch, co-equal with Planning and Training. 

It was Moshe Dayan—the IDF’s fourth chief of staff, an unconventional commander and thinker charged by Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) Ben-Gurion with the mission of transforming it into a more effective force—who plucked Intelligence out of its third-tier status as a department  and elevated it into a co-equal branch of the general staff. He did so for two main reasons. 

Firstly, early warning was a crucial component in Israel’s defense doctrine. With a skeletal group of career officers and a small compulsory service standing force, the IDF was to be beefed up in wartime by reserves taken out of the country’s civilian workforce (who needed to return to work as soon as possible, serving as an incentive to wage short and decisive campaigns). The national leadership would therefore have to be forewarned just in time that Arab armies were converging around the small, narrow territory of the Jewish state. 

It is surely not a coincidence that a cable warning of a fast collapse of the Afghan government came from State Department diplomats and not military officers. Canadian soldiers during patrol in southern Afghanistan, 2009. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
It is surely not a coincidence that a cable warning of a fast collapse of the Afghan government came from State Department diplomats and not military officers. Canadian soldiers during patrol in southern Afghanistan, 2009. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The key was “just in time,” rather than the wasteful “just in case” full-scale regular army, which would have been beyond Israel’s meagre means. Israel therefore expected its watchstanders to alert it neither too soon nor too late. A false alarm, often repeated, would be almost as harmful as a missed one. It became imperative to invest in intelligence disproportionately, by putting the best talents and tools there, to collect raw information and supply higher authorities with distilled assessments.

Secondly, although intelligence may have been divorced from operations writ large, successful collection required an operational system of its own. Whether this meant contacts by case officers recruiting spies, or deep penetration behind enemy lines to plant listening and transmitting devices, these were operational efforts no less than manoeuvering an armor battalion into position. To initiate, manage, and supervise them, operations-oriented officers, not only academically-inclined ones, were needed at the new Directorate of Military Intelligence.

In the competitive climate of the military, this meant—in turn—that an esprit de corps emerged in various disciplines within Intelligence. One of these was Liaison, clandestine contacts with a wide range of partners—including groups, movements, and militias in countries of concern to Israel—with the potential to distract enemy regimes from sending expeditionary forces to fight it. This was the rationale, for example, behind helping the Kurds to fight Iraqi oppressors over what was then a friendly Iranian border. Elsewhere, there was hope of secretly grooming moderates to take over and put an end to hostilities.

The benefits of such liaison, however, come with a cost. Those who build these bridges are often keen to state, or overstate, their value. In a bureaucracy, it is natural for each component to protect its power and prestige, emanating from its hold over a certain specialty. The punchline in an old Israeli comedy routine has three lakeside idling anglers asking themselves, “does a fisherman love fish?” Well, it’s complicated. Whoever is fishing for intelligence develops a certain bond with his prey, like the proverbial Rommel’s picture on Montgomery’s wall. In liaising with outside groups, whether done through attaches, foreign area officers, or diplomats, the affliction known as “localitis”—an inflammation of sympathy for the local client—can overcome the most hardened immune systems. Chaperones become champions. The fish catch the fishermen.

This leaves a gap: Being external to the force, partners are not assessed by the operational side nor are they subject to an honest intelligence-based net assessment. Policymakers do not encourage staffers to bring them inconvenient truths, and oftentimes, at the working level, they are not considered truths. When this reality is not two-dimensional (American–Soviet, Israel–Egypt) but must factor in partners and proxies, the cold calculus is thrown even more out of sync.

The skeptics were proven right on all counts.
Bashir Gemayel (left) and Ariel Sharon (2nd right) in 1982. Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

A case in point is Israel’s Lebanon policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Begin government threw in its lot with Lebanese Christians, including the Maronites, and especially with one of the competing militias, the Phalange Lebanese Forces under Bashir Gemayel. He, his lieutenants, and his troops were met on both sides of the border, hosted in Israeli training ranges, where they had long philosophical talks with their mentors, impressing them as urbane and sophisticated, yet determined to free Beirut of Syrian rule and Palestinian interference. Gemayel and his associates were so convincing that an entire war plan was created around them. Named “Spark,” it had the IDF invading South Lebanon in response to Palestinian shelling of Israeli towns—pretext to be supplied—and within a week or so of heavy lifting suitable to a military machine, the Lebanese Forces linked up with the Israelis, fighting on and liberating their capital, with Gemayel then elected president and presumably signing peace with Israel.

This time around, the advocates came from the Mossad, which had been in charge of the daily interaction with the Maronites. Its operatives wholeheartedly vouched for Gemayel and his associates. When the head of the Intelligence branch disputed the rosy assessment, he was waved off as jealous of Mossad privileges and was bypassed by his deputy, who sought to curry favor with the IDF’s chief of staff (who, in turn, firmly believed in the utility of the intervention in Lebanon, in line with the political echelon, particularly Defense Minister Ariel Sharon).

His skeptics were proven right on all counts. The Lebanese Forces, whose fighting was supposed to limit Israeli casualties and preserve public support of this avoidable war, did not translate their bravado into bravery. They had many explanations but not a lot of fighting spirit. Reports of massacres committed by them and ordered by their leaders became more frequent. When Gemayel was elected, he shocked Begin by telling him that circumstances had changed, and he would not sign the coveted peace treaty. This did not prevent the Syrians from ordering his assassination: His followers then went on a rampage in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, killing hundreds of Palestinians and destroying whatever hope Begin had of salvaging his war and his power.

The Lebanon War was planned long in advance, in several iterations. Planners considered Syrian moves, Palestinian reactions, American views under Carter and then Reagan, and Egyptian resentment after Sadat’s assassination. These were major factors, mostly outside Israel’s control. Gemayel’s political movement and barbaric militia were seemingly best understood and predicted; but they were not, because many of the very intelligence officers who were supposed to assess their capabilities and intentions could not detach themselves enough for an objective opinion.

Apparently, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces felt abandoned by their American trainers and advisors. It may run against human nature and professional pride to admit that your life’s work is worthless, that when push (or Pashtun) comes to shove, your comrades-at-arms will disintegrate much like the French Army of 1940, Hitler’s allies in Stalingrad, the ARVN of South Vietnam in 1975, and the Iraqi Army of 2003 and 2014.

It is surely not a coincidence that a cable warning of a fast collapse of the Afghan government came from State Department diplomats and not military officers, and that the only constant critic of the effectiveness of the entire Afghan effort has been SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. They were not in the chain of command, had no axe (or ex) to grind, and no emotional attachment to the projects they were supposed to assess. Such attachment is definitely in order when saving Afghan friends and collaborators, hiding them and spiriting them to safety, but not when evaluating their performance. 

Much like third-party insurance, third-party intelligence should be reviewed and acquired by those who do not have a vested interest in such partners. The Afghan lesson need not be lost: after all, it began with a successful, limited, and focused hook-up with the Northern Alliance. Nation-propping illusions set in later.

Israel, too, has recovered from its unrealistic hopes that the Palestinian Authority’s security forces could be adequate in fighting common enemies, such as Hamas. In 2007, Fatah movement members, the backbone of the PA’s forces, quickly crumbled under the onslaught of a smaller but more cohesive Hamas force in Gaza. Some Israeli analysts warned, a year earlier, that Hamas could win an election. Practically none had seen this Fatah debacle coming. In this, as in the Afghan case, the inescapable conclusion is that getting it right in two out of three (know the enemy, know yourself—but not thy partner) isn’t bad—it’s often catastrophic.

>> Inside Intelligence: Read more from Amir Oren

Amir Oren
Amir Oren has been covering national security, intelligence, and foreign affairs as a combat correspondent and commentator for decades. He is a regular lecturer at defense colleges and intelligence and diplomacy fora in Israel, Canada, the EU, and NATO. @Rimanero
Read the
print issue
Get the latest from JST
How often would you like to hear from us?
Thank you! Your request was successfully submitted.