The Israeli incursion into Gaza has begun though we do not know yet how full or advanced it will become. But it is reminding us already that war, especially urban combat, is indeed hell.
So what will this ground invasion actually look like on a tactical level?
Gaza proper is roughly 25 miles long and on average 5.5 miles wide. This is a tiny amount of space in which to conduct a large-scale military operation. Most modern artillery can almost shoot the length of Gaza. Most modern anti-tank missiles can shoot half its width. Israeli F-16s can fly the length of the strip in under three minutes and will find it necessary to be in a constant turn to maintain position over Gaza City.
To make the range issue worse is the urban nature of the battlefield. While it might only be around five miles wide, it's highly unlikely that you have line of sight that far due to man-made obstacles — better known as buildings. What this means is no one has superior range. If you can see it, it’s in range. If it’s in range, so are you.
The majority of this space in fact is covered in buildings — shops, offices, schools, hospitals, and residences. Each one provides cover and concealment for fighters. The structures also create natural channels funneling attacking forces into pre-designated fire zones for ambushes or over top of improvised explosive devices.
Israeli armor can’t conduct maneuver warfare on this battlefield. Armor will be sitting ducks without infantry support. Infantry are vulnerable to everything. The Israelis will take losses, and already have, according to the New York Times on Wednesday.
Urban areas pose difficult tactical problems. Fortified urban areas are worse. Over the past decade Hamas has developed a labyrinth of tunnels that are fortified and connected literally across the entirety of the strip, and especially heavy in Gaza City. They use these underground structures for command and control, movement, logistics, shelter, and as a way to “out flank” and ambush an enemy.
Fortified urban areas with significant population density pose the biggest challenges. The majority of combat will take place in Gaza city proper which has a greater population density than New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia or San Francisco. There are over two million people living in an area roughly twice the size of Washington D.C. This means civilians, or non-combatants, are everywhere. Even if half the population has moved south it will still cause the Israelis immense targeting problems.
In addition, the densely populated area compounds the Israeli problem of target identification. Hamas intentionally blends in with the civilian population.
The bottom line for the battlefield is that it helps Hamas and hinders the Israelis. In urban warfare, the defender, in this case Hamas, has the advantage. An advantage that can be mitigated if the attacker has overwhelming firepower, and the will to use it.
How Hamas will fight
Hamas will use the urban terrain to cause excessive Israeli casualties while forcing them to injure civilians to limit those casualties. They will make every block a fortress and every street corner an ambush site. By using the “subterranean flank” they will pop out of tunnels and hiding places in buildings to shoot at Israeli vehicles with missiles, launch grenades, or even throw Molotov cocktails.
While they may not be using Javelin anti-tank weapons (although the threat of Hamas having those weapons shouldn't be dismissed, given what may have been captured or “lost” in Ukraine), their weapons will be more than sufficient to at least disable a tank and cause casualties. The short ranges decrease Israeli reaction time and increase lethality.
Hamas fighters are commingled with the civilian population most likely both intentionally and unintentionally, and will take full advantage of that. They know the world watches what the Israelis do and are counting on pressure to make them stop. Again, they see this war as existential, so they will use any and all means to win.
How the Israelis will fight
First, Israelis must find the Hamas fighters, then engage them in their fortified positions.They must do this without taking unreasonable casualties, all the while trying not to kill civilians.
To find Hamas fighters the Israelis will use a variety of sources. They will have already scanned the electromagnetic spectrum for everything from cell phones, computers, to radios looking for an electronic signature to identify a potential target. They will pour over social media for anything identifiable.They will use drones, manned aircraft, and human reconnaissance teams to confirm and verify what they think they know.
They will do all this and more to listen, collect, and build a targeting picture of command centers, logistics sites, artillery positions, and order of battle — who is who, who has what, and where it is.
This process is called intelligence preparation of the battlefield. This is what the Israelis have been doing — in truth some of their targets were most likely derived long before Hamas attacked just as most certainly Hamas had/has a robust target list of Israeli targets — since the start of hostilities.
The ground incursion of course changes this process. With Israeli tanks and infantry “closing” with the enemy, finding and subsequently engaging Hamas fighters will most likely devolve into merely returning fire — often with zero time to figure out how to limit civilian casualties.
It’s one thing to take a breath and disengage in sparse open terrain, it’s another thing to figure out who is shooting at you.
Once located, the Israelis have a host of options to engage the Hamas fighters. But it’s not a simple task of deciding what weapon is best to use. They have to measure what they do by three metrics: 1) does it achieve the desired effect on the enemy? 2) Can they accomplish the task without losing too many Israeli soldiers? 3) Can they limit civilian casualties, which in excess can be a war loser for Israel?
If civilian casualties weren’t a concern, the Israelis would use their massive firepower to destroy any and all Hamas targets or potential targets. They have the potential to literally level Gaza City using 2,000-pound satellite guided bombs with delayed fuses to smash the known tunnel complexes or at least seal them for eternity. This would meet the goal of destroying Hamas and limiting Israeli losses.
But in reality this approach would cause unacceptable civilian casualties. The inverse would be to advance for a close quarter battle that seeks a more “surgical” path. In a close quarter battle, you do nothing to mitigate the defender’s advantage in urban warfare and you take losses — lots and lots of losses.
Storming a building can be like storming a trench. We have seen what that is like in Ukraine.
So how will the Israelis fight? Their best option for destroying Hamas (which is the first priority), managing their own losses (second priority), and limiting civilian casualties (last priority), will be to strike hard when they have known, verified targets, advance to make contact with the enemy, then choose the weapon to engage. Moving slowly, deliberately, a block at a time.
This is why the prime minister said it would be a long war. This grinds Hamas down through attrition and loss of supply. The longer it takes, the more food, water, and fuel Hamas uses with no hope of real re-supply. The Israelis proclaim this war is existential. They will keep that consideration as they manage the tension of their losses and civilian casualties.
Some suggest this will look like the battle for Fallujah between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents. Perhaps. But I suggest it will be more like Stalingrad or Berlin. Like in those battles, both sides see the war as existential and will conduct themselves accordingly.
One thing is for certain, for the populations on both sides, this war is truly hell.
The Pentagon failed to properly track a majority of the sensitive weapons that the U.S. has sent to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, according to a major new report from the Department of Defense’s inspector general.
The U.S. has given Ukraine roughly $1.7 billion worth of weapons that it considers to be at high risk of diversion, $1 billion of which was not inventoried according to American legal standards for end-use monitoring, according to the report, which also notes that inventory practices have somewhat improved since the early days of the war.
The IG report does not allege any diversion of U.S. weapons, an inquiry that the office describes as “beyond the scope of our evaluation.” The investigation only addressed the highest risk weapons and did not look at the vast majority of U.S. aid.
The news comes just two weeks after the United States announced its latest weapons package for Ukraine. If congressional Republicans succeed in blocking a new emergency funding bill, that announcement may be the final tranche of military aid that Washington gives Ukraine.
To understand the report’s importance, it’s useful to look more closely at what “end-use monitoring” (EUM) means in practice. In U.S. law, EUM focuses on ensuring that American weapons reach and remain with their intended recipients. This entails all sorts of complicated logistics, including periodic audits.
In that sense, EUM is a bit of a misnomer. U.S. officials are not actually investigating the way weapons are used in a conflict; they just want to be sure that American arms haven’t fallen into the enemy’s hands or been given to a group that doesn’t share U.S. goals.
In Ukraine, these efforts have been complicated by the vagaries of war. There are few U.S. officials in the country and even fewer that can get to the frontlines, where many weapons are kept, meaning that Kyiv has been forced to improve its own arms tracking procedures while fighting a brutal and often fast-moving war.
As fears of weapons diversion grew — driven in part by Ukraine’s long history as an arms trafficking hub — the Biden administration announced in late 2022 a program of “enhanced” EUM for high-risk weapons like Stinger missile launchers, which non-state groups could use to take down a commercial airliner. The program employed a dual approach, improving inventory standards while training Ukrainian officials to find and stop attempts to smuggle weapons out of the country.
At the time, arms control experts welcomed the plan but criticized its narrow focus. The new IG report now indicates that officials have failed to live up to their own promises on EUM, raising the chances that diversion could happen without raising red flags.
Of course, this is far from the first time that the U.S. has fallen short in its EUM practices. Between 2018 and 2021, American officials failed to report that Guatemalan officials had on multiple occasions used U.S. military jeeps to intimidate international organizations and U.S. embassy staff, according to the Government Accountability Office.
But the Ukraine case is particularly concerning given reports that Russia has captured several U.S. weapons systems and is now seeking to reverse engineer them. Arms control experts argue that this should serve as a wakeup call for U.S. officials.
In a recent op-ed, Dylan Cordle and Jen Spindel of the University of New Hampshire argued that American EUM policies would benefit from a major overhaul. “Bureaucratic changes should address communication, resources, and coordination of US EUM efforts, and new technologies can more securely, transparently, and efficiently conduct EUM,” Cordle and Spindel wrote.
Among other recommendations, they suggest moving all EUM authority to the Defense Department instead of splitting it between the Pentagon and State Department. They also call for new hiring authorities that would empower oversight officials to quickly scale up EUM efforts. Their most innovative idea is to use blockchain technology to help with inventorying weapons.
“Regardless of how EUM proceeds, the war in Ukraine has revealed some of the weaknesses within current programs, and we envision that 2024 will bring renewed attention to EUM as the US tries to comply with its own legal and ethical guidelines,” Cordle and Spindel wrote.
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Activists call on Biden to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay during a January 2023 protest. (Phil Pasquini/ Shutterstock)
Today marks 22 years since the first set of detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military base in Cuba. The camp, in the George W. Bush administration’s telling, fell outside of the normal jurisdiction of federal courts and was thus free from pesky concerns like treating detainees humanely or charging them with crimes.
“Gitmo” quickly became a by-word for the worst excesses of the Global War on Terror, including torture and indefinite detention. By 2005, the New York Times editorial board had already called on Bush to shut it down, arguing that such a move “would pay instant dividends around the world.”
Yet all these years later, the military prison remains open, at a cost of roughly $445 million per year. Following promises to close Guantanamo, President Joe Biden has only released 10 detainees. This despite the fact that a United Nations rapporteur alleged just last year that detainees still face “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” and most of the 30 people currently held there have already been cleared for release. This includes the first known victim of CIA waterboarding, who has been detained for over 21 years without charge.
“More than half of those who remain are men the United States itself does not believe need to be detained,” wrote the Center for Constitutional Rights in a statement. “The fact that they continue to languish after two decades is a cruelty that could end tomorrow.”
Roughly 800 people have been detained at the prison at some point over the last two decades. At its May 2003 peak, the facility held 680 detainees.
For CCR, Biden’s inability or unwillingness to close the camp undermines his calls for Israel to avoid repeating Washington’s post-9/11 excesses in its response to last year’s Hamas attack.
“While his warning may have been apt, his use of the past tense was not,” the group argued. “The prison at Guantánamo Bay is one of those mistakes, willfully perpetuated by the Biden administration each day it remains open.”
Even retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who led the camp’s opening, now argues that it must be shut down. “To me, the existence of Guantanamo is anathema to everything that we represent, and it needs to be closed for that reason,” Lehnert told AP News in 2021.
So why hasn’t Biden shuttered the camp? The administration, to the extent that it’s weighed in at all since taking office, blames congressional Republicans, who have long opposed closing the facility. But, for Scott Roehm of the Center for Victims of Torture, it’s “largely been a lack of courage and a lack of priority.”
“It's hard to imagine that the State Department couldn't find a single country in the world willing to receive some of these cleared-for-release men,” Roehm told NPR. “And so it appears they're continuing to languish at Guantanamo because that's what senior-most administration officials chose to do.”
Of the 30 remaining prisoners, 10 have been charged with war crimes and one convicted. CCR says the Biden administration should seek plea deals in these cases and double down on its efforts to transfer the rest to other countries.
“The Biden administration needs no new authority or ideas,” argues CCR. “All it needs is the political will and a willingness to do the work.”
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Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS//File Photo
For the Arab Gulf kingdoms, the Horn of Africa is a strategic perimeter. They want to minimize political threats — some are hostile to Islamists, all want to suppress democracy movements. Anticipating a post-carbon and food insecure world, the Gulf States want to possess rich farmlands. Each has its own vision of African client states that will do their bidding.
This is a recipe for proxy wars, state fragmentation and autocracy in northeast Africa.
For the Horn of Africa, today’s crises are existential. War, dictatorship and famine are causing state collapse. The African Union is compromised, its peace and security system unravelling. The United Nations is retreating from peacemaking, increasingly reduced to a bare-bones humanitarian provider.
The dangers were illuminated by the surprise New Year’s Day deal between Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, and Muse Bihi, president of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, a breakaway region of northwest Somalia. Ethiopia has been renowned for careful diplomacy, including championing the inviolability of existing boundaries. After fighting wars with Somalia in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ethiopia had learned to be circumspect and consultative in its dealings with Mogadishu.
Last week, Ethiopia upended that tradition. It promised to recognize Somaliland as an independent sovereign state, in return for Somaliland leasing it a 12-mile stretch of land, including a seaport, that will allow Ethiopia to establish a naval base. This in turn unleashed strong words from Somalia — which had not been informed ahead of time. The AU called for Ethiopia to treat Somalia with respect. Fears of new conflicts were stirred. Unsaid in public is that the UAE is widely suspected to be the patron of the deal.
For the United States, crises in the Horn of Africa are a sidebar to the ongoing Israel-Gaza war and the confrontation with Iran. Gunboat diplomacy in the Red Sea — the warships deployed under Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect shipping from attacks from the Houthis in Yemen — is the priority.
After a few years the flotilla commanders concluded that the solution to piracy lay onshore, in the form of diplomacy to resolve Somalia’s conflicts and economic assistance to provide livelihoods to impoverished fishermen. That was a step in the right direction.
Saudi Arabia chairs a Red Sea Forum that includes eight littoral states (all except Israel), to tackle piracy, smuggling and marine resources — not political issues.
Six years ago, Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa who chairs the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for the Horn of Africa, introduced the term “Red Sea Arena.” The idea was to create a diplomatic forum that would include not just the littoral states, but all the other countries with vital interests in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden or with political and commercial links across the narrow strip of water.
The former AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ramtane Lamamra explained: “The Red Sea has historically been a bridge rather than a divide, with the peoples on the two shores sharing culture, trade, and social relations.” Egypt has millennia-old interests in the Nile Valley and both shores of the Red Sea. Ethiopia has a vital interest in access to the sea. The UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Turkey all have historic or current interests.
Regional and global power struggles are played out in the Red Sea Arena. Seven nations including the U.S., China, Turkey and the UAE have naval bases there. Others, including Iran and Russia, have warships in the vicinity and are actively seeking bases. The port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba is Israel’s strategic back door, as the Houthi attacks on shipping have dramatically shown.
The plan for a standing conference of Red Sea Arena states built on proposals contained in the World Peace Foundation report to the AU, “African Politics, African Peace” — for which Mbeki and veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi co-authored the preface. The idea was that Middle Eastern states should sign on to the principles of the AU’s peace and security architecture and establish joint mechanisms for cooperation.
The AU failed to act on these proposals. Nor were they raised at the UN Security Council.
Instead, Arabian Gulf states are increasingly assertive in the Horn, and they’re bringing an aggressive form of transactional politics, including funding proxies to fight wars. The U.S. — whose security umbrella sheltered the Red Sea for decades — seems uninterested.
Saudi Arabia has long seen the African shore of the Red Sea as part of its security perimeter. Qatar and Turkey sought influence in Sudan and Somalia, especially among the Islamists. Israel has discreetly sought a determining role in the region.
But the key actor is the UAE. A small, rich state, it uses proxies to project power, and supports separatists in disregard of international norms. Abu Dhabi’s clients include key players in Libya and Chad, and it is positioning itself as kingmaker in the Horn. The UAE supports and arms Ethiopia. It already controls many ports in the region — including, it is suspected, the proposed Ethiopian port and naval base in the land leased from Somaliland. But Abu Dhabi has yet to clarify its strategic goals for the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.
The last decade has been a rollercoaster of hope and horror for the peoples of the Red Sea Arena. Popular uprisings in Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan all descended into lethal brews of autocracy, war, atrocity, and famine, with local conflicts escalating into proxy wars. Guided by the short-term imperative of staying in power — and by the ambitions of cash-rich foreign sponsors — today’s leaders are too often short-sighted and transactional.
Under UN and AU guidance, a raft of peace agreements was crafted to serve as the threshold for democracy. Today a peace pact, such as the threadbare “Permanent Cessation of Hostilities” that ended Ethiopia’s war in Tigray, may be no more than a truce. The principle of the primacy of politics — that served Africa’s peace agenda well — has come to mean short-term transactionalism rather than a commitment to democracy, good governance, and inclusivity.
Today’s regression means that Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki is being rehabilitated. For 30 years, Isaias has ruled an iron fist, with no constitution let alone political parties or an open media, hoping that the tide of global liberalism would recede. He looks to be proven correct.
Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemedti,” commander of the Rapid Support Forces, the insurgent paramilitaries notorious for their human rights abuses, is touring Africa in a Royal Jet airplane (an Emirati airline). He arrived in Addis Ababa last week where he met Prime Minister Abiy. Extending protocol to Emirati-backed disrupters is the new normal in the region.
To the extent that it functions at all, the AU is becoming the face of illiberal multilateralism, veering away from its founding principles. The UN’s practice of deferring to its regional partners leaves it eviscerated. The InterGovernmental Authority on Development — the eight-member northeast African bloc — is now deeply divided and approaching paralysis.
With the Horn of Africa and Yemen slipping far down the priority list in Western foreign ministries, America and Europe are sending mid-ranking diplomats into the snake pit, woefully under-armed for the perils they encounter. Too easily intimidated by swaggering local despots, perhaps swayed by zombie “Pan Africanist” slogans that challenge their right to talk about human rights, they have left their countries irrelevant in the face of ruthless Gulf power-broking.
Recent developments could not have been anticipated in detail. But American diplomats saw the broader challenge some years ago. In 2020, a bipartisan “senior study group” on the Red Sea convened by the United States Institute of Peace, prioritized a broad diplomatic strategy for the Red Sea Arena. The USIP report warned that conflicts in the region could threaten U.S. national security and proposed a high-level envoy with a broad mandate.
The Biden administration quickly appointed a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, but the Africa Bureau at the State Department soon downgraded the position. The cost of this strategic neglect is becoming clear today.
There’s still a chance for a diplomatic forum that promotes collective security. Washington has lost its best opportunities to take a lead — any U.S. initiative today will arouse deep suspicions among others. Middle Eastern powers don’t, as a rule, propose collective action, and the Gulf states are divided. The Europeans will follow, not lead.
The onus of leadership then falls on Africa and on the United Nations. Acting together, they can create a consensus that brings on board America, Europe, China, and Russia in a forum framed by the agenda of a stable and cooperative Red Sea Arena.