Friday, March 27, 2009

White Phosphorus: How not to fight an asymmetric conflict

Israel has been caught out using White Phosphorus on civilians in Palestine. The explanation given was that ‘Israel doesn’t use White Phosphorus on civilians, it’s used on the battlefield to provide smoke’. More interestingly, the same spokesperson said that we ‘use it in the same way western countries do’. I’m figuring that they are talking about America, since they are armed by the Americans, and the US is a strong supporter of Israel.

This battlefield referred to sounds like something not seen since the First World War, with opposing armies neatly lined-up facing each other with a clearly defined space in between, not crowded urban Palestine. White Phosphorus has been banned for use in combat since perhaps WW1.

Incidents like this use of White Phosphorus in the middle of civilian populations (one family of 5 was burnt to death when a White Phosphorus shell landed in their lounge room) points to the fact that countries like Israel and America aren’t really prepared to fight asymmetric warfare in an appropriate manner, going in and engaging an enemy on their territory, the weapons and tactics that are appropriate for such a fight place soldiers at greater risk. It is far safer to just rely on technological supremacy. Safer for the soldiers that don’t have to fight in tunnels and caves against forces that are prepared for such a battle, and safer for the government that sends the troops to fight against a force like the Viet Kong, Taliban, etc, as getting your people killed by a rag-tag force armed with sharpened sticks puts you in considerable risk in the next election.
The problem is that the ‘bomb it flat from a safe distance’ approach to fighting guerrilla forces will kill a lot more civilians than ‘combatants’. Never-the-less, this is the method employed by countries like America and Israel, simply because they can’t afford to pay the full price in dead soldiers, it is also the reason they haven’t /won’t win any of these wars. They may kill a lot of people, but the high percentage of civilian casualties just inspires more people to take-up arms against the injustice.

Israel may use the ‘but other countries do it too’ excuse, it kind of shows that they aren’t planning on winning the war, at least not in a conventional sense – about the only way to defeat a guerrilla force with such indiscriminate force is to commit genocide. The Americans are in a similar mess with Iraq and Afghanistan, although there is some hope that the new president is trying to extricate his country from the mess his predecessor got them into. It’s worth taking a moment to consider the achievement of George W. Bush, managing to get his country (and others) into two wars that they can’t win, that is an extraordinary effort – few presidents ever manage to start one unwinnable war.

As long as the US and Israel believe that their ‘terrorism problem’ should be responded to with a ‘nation versus nation’, air-strikes to remove all resistance and critical infrastructure, followed by an bloody and largely unsuccessful attempt to occupy territory, then don’t expect the ‘problem’ to be solved, and get used to White Phosphorus, Depleted Uranium, Cluster Bombs, and other outlawed practices being used on civilians. The US and Israel will say that they weren’t trying to get the civilians (or will say they were terrorists, or that the terrorists were using civilians as ‘human shields’), but nor are they interested in avoiding the civilians – it’s just not a high enough priority. It's not so much a matter of 'acceptable losses', but 'unacceptable cost' to avoid civilians.

And the White Phosphorus? Well, the practice of bombing civilians is illegal – America and Israel are war criminals – so while bombing civilians is illegal, why not use some exotic and barbaric banned weapons if you are going to do it?

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