On 24 May 2000 the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon after 18 years of war. A few months earlier I completed my national service as an IDF operations sergeant, serving in command centres on the Lebanese border. Back then I watched the withdrawal with relief; happy that the roadside bombs, shelling, Hezbollah attacks on convoys and outposts, the wounded and the killed – everything that had been my daily reality for two years – was now a thing of the past.
Today I watch the withdrawal of American and British forces out of Afghanistan with dread. There are differences between Israel’s involvement in Lebanon and the involvement in Afghanistan; there are also differences between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But the two conflicts also have much in common and important lessons can be learnt from the Israeli experience.
Following the 1982 war, Israel’s main objectives for remaining in Southern Lebanon were to reduce risk from the terrorist organisations by creating a buffer zone and limiting Syrian presence close to the border. In time, and with no visible benefits or triumphs, the Israeli public grew weary of the presence in Lebanon – as did politicians. In 1998, the PM announced that Israel would withdraw its forces, but only after liaising with the Lebanese government. It was also hoped that a deal with Syria would be struck before the retreat.
Neither happened. The withdrawal was hasty and with little forward planning. It was one-sided and supplied Hezbollah with a sense of triumph. This had major consequences. It undermined Israel’s deterrence. The images of troops leaving Lebanon were used by Hezbollah to increase support, promote recruitment and elevate morale. A day after the retreat, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his (in)famous ‘spiderweb’ speech. He claimed that Israel, despite its military might and technological superiority, was as weak as a spiderweb – alluding to the public’s sensitivity to casualties, Israel’s risk aversion and the war-weariness that constrained the IDF. Following the withdrawal, Hezbollah provoked Israel by carrying out attacks: once in 2000 – which Israel didn’t react to, further damaging its deterrence – and again in 2006, which led to the second Lebanon War. Palestinian terror organisations also took notice, and the second intifada broke out several months after the withdrawal from Lebanon.
The South Lebanon army collapsed immediately. Israel didn't have a strategy to keep it going in the absence of IDF forces, causing SLA troops and their families to flee to Israel for fear of reprisals. Granted, the SLA wasn’t a national army like the Afghan army. It was a small force established to protect a small and persecuted religious minority. However, the rapid collapse of trained and funded armed forces should serve as a cautionary tale.
The retreat has exposed Israel to growing threats: Iran established a presence near the border. Hezbollah also came closer to the border and gained easier access to advanced and long-range weapons systems. It also helped Hezbollah establish itself as a significant political force.
The US and UK could take some lessons from Lebanon. It is dangerous to pull out your forces in a way that makes your enemies seem victorious. Doing so can motivate and encourage terror organisations – not only in Afghanistan but internationally and in the UK. A precipitate retreat from Afghanistan could open the way to increased Russian intervention in the same way Iran intervened in Lebanon. It’s also important to take actions to reduce the chances that the Afghan army will collapse and to sustain government autonomy. Lebanon’s government was weakened by the strengthening of Hezbollah and Iran in the country. A plan should be put in place for responses should the Taliban break the terms of its agreement. Israel chose a policy of containment, which failed. Finally, the retreat might send a message that Nato forces cannot be relied upon in the long-term.
Afghanistan is different. Nato forces have had tremendous successes, and their presence is still required in order to prevent the country from descending into chaos. But, since a withdrawal has been agreed, it should be done with a clear exit strategy that isn’t one-sided and has a credible system in place to deter al-Qaeda and other militants. The two great authoritarian powers, China and Russia, are watching and taking note of signs of weakness, any lack of appetite in the West to be involved in future conflicts and increased risk-aversion. What’s at stake isn’t just Afghan security, but the future security of the UK.