Good WaPo article on Hezbollah guerilla capabilities. MacGyver has also been on the case, asking the right questions about Hezbollah’s competence. There are three questions that I find of particular interest:
How good is Hezbollah?
The WaPo article says that they’re very good, and I’ve heard pretty much the same thing from practitioners. They are extremely adept at digging in, creating ambushes, kill zones, and so forth. Part of this expertise comes from a lot of experience fighting the IDF, and part of it comes from outside training. They’re also one of the better equipped guerilla organizations in the world. It’s certainly impressive that they managed to keep firing large numbers of rockets at northern Israel even as the IDF meandered into a large scale ground offensive. It’s also quite impressive that they managed to destroy a number of Israeli armored vehicles; the US generals in Iraq had to be watching this and praying that the advanced Russian antitank missiles don’t start falling into the hands of Iraqi insurgents. Even then, tank destroying capability depends as much (or more) on the expertise of the shooter as it does on the capability of the weapon, and Hezbollah proved it knew how to effectively use good weaponry. Of course, measuring effectiveness is always a difficult thing, and it has been reasonably argued that Hezbollah has not so much displayed outstanding effectiveness as demonstrated a level of competence heretofore unseen among Arab military organizations.
How much did the Israelis hurt Hezbollah?
This is probably the most important question, and the answers differ. I do suspect that analysts are being a bit too pat regarding Hezbollah’s “victory” in this war; the Israelis killed a lot of fighters, and forced Hezbollah to expend a lot of rockets (although the tactic of depleting enemy rockets by encouraging them to be fired on your cities seems like a not terribly clever form of rope-a-dope). Hezbollah’s fighting force is relatively small, and the analyses I’ve seen suggest that the Israelis killed close to 10% of their total manpower. Including wounded, the damage is undoubtedly a bit higher than that, and not the kind of pain that a guerilla organization will regularly want to experience. Hezbollah will see a recruiting bonanza, but much of the organization’s strength is tied up in human expertise and capital, and it will take a while to achieve the same level of expertise and capability. It’s hard to say, but it looked to me as if, toward the end of the conflict, Hezbollah was taking the Israeli bait and trying to fight stand up skirmishes against the IDF, which can never be a good thing. Although we’ll never know for sure, the final Israeli offensive may have caused some real damage to the organization. The destruction of Hezbollah infrastructure is also a problem, as well developed bunkers don’t grow on trees (or in the ground, as the case may be) and Israeli destruction of parts of their system will in general reduce Hezbollah capabilities.
What does this tell us about Iran?
This is the million dollar question, and my first response would be “Not much.” It’s very hard to argue that Hezbollah’s competence in waging guerilla warfare in southern Lebanon tells us very much about either the Revolutionary Guard or the conventional Iranian armed forces. I would bet that most of the human capital that Hezbollah has built up has come from experiential learning rather than vicarious; that is, they’re developing expertise from within, rather than based on Iranian training. There’s no really good reason to believe that the Iranians, who have little experience with guerilla war, could have developed competence in it to the degree that they could help out Hezbollah. Certainly, they have probably imparted expertise on the use of particular weapon systems, but I doubt that their training extends very far beyond technical competence and basic light infantry tactics. Indeed, it’s almost as interesting to ask whether the expertise has flowed in the opposite direction, and wonder how much Iran has learned from the experience of Hezbollah. My guess, again, would be “not much”, as conventional military organizations have not historically learned very much from irregular forces. The problem remains that no one really knows how competent Iranian military forces have become, and I’m not convinced that the experience of the Israeli-Hezbollah war tells us anything very useful about their capabilities.