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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Austin returns to Israel with a tougher message and lessons learned

A U.S. Army photo shows then-Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, right, the current Secretary of Defense, outside Baghdad on Sept. 11, 2007. He has been involved in many of the United States’ major operations over the past two decades, including the troop “surge” in Iraq. (Spc. Nicholas A. Hernandez/U.S. Army via The New York Times)

By Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt

After three years as President Joe Biden’s quiet man at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stepped off his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday and into the limelight.

It was his second visit to the region since Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Oct. 7. During meetings and conversations with Israeli officials, Austin has stressed both the Biden administration’s support for Israel and concerns about the rising Palestinian death toll.

But his message has become more blunt: Israel, Austin recently predicted, could face “strategic defeat” that would leave the country less secure if it does not do more to protect civilians.

The warning is one that Austin is well equipped to deliver. The retired four-star general brings a wealth of military experience in combat, including urban warfare. Early U.S. efforts to target the Taliban and insurgents in Afghanistan in 2004. The troop “surge” in Iraq in 2007. The planning to pry Mosul, Iraq, from the hands of the Islamic State group in 2016. Austin was involved in all of that.

As the Biden administration navigates the Gaza crisis, the intensely private Austin is taking a prominent role and also revealing more of himself.

“You know, I learned a thing or two about urban warfare from my time fighting in Iraq and leading the campaign to defeat ISIS,” he said in a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum this month, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “The lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”

Republicans criticized the defense secretary for not sounding supportive enough of Israel. The day after the speech, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Austin was “naïve,” adding, “I’ve just lost all confidence in this guy.”

But critics of Israel’s bombing campaign say the message is long overdue, as the death toll in Gaza nears 20,000, according to health officials there.

“This level of civilian killing and destruction, and the rage it generates, guarantees militant recruitment and support for resistance among future generations, both in Palestine and beyond,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. “That’s a problem for both Israel and the U.S.”

Criticism of how Israel is conducting the war has grown in recent days after its military said soldiers on Friday accidentally killed three Israeli hostages held in Gaza. The men were holding a makeshift white flag when they were shot, the military said.

During his earlier trip to Israel, six days after the Hamas attack, Austin warned his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, and the country’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, that the large number of troops they had assembled at the border of Gaza, combined with the air campaign, was excessive.

Israel needed to establish humanitarian corridors and a defined set of rules to protect Palestinian civilians, he told them. The Israeli military, he said, should carry out a targeted precision air campaign, with limited numbers of special operations troops on the ground to act quickly on intelligence leads about the location of senior Hamas leaders.

One day later, on Oct. 14, he took his warning public. In a Pentagon statement describing his phone call with Gallant, and in other statements about their calls since then, Austin raised the issue of civilian casualties.

Austin’s advice comes from both successes and failures of the U.S. military, including the thousands of civilian deaths in U.S. bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Last year, Austin ordered the U.S. military to strengthen its efforts to prevent civilian deaths in combat operations.

He has also urged Israeli leaders to prioritize efforts to recover hostages taken by the group and others on Oct. 7, sending scores of U.S. Special Operations forces to advise Israeli planners and dispatching MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drones to fly over Gaza to search for clues about the captives’ locations.

Since the war in Gaza began, Israel has insisted that it is trying to limit civilian casualties in a battle against a terrorist group that embeds itself among the population.

Israeli military officials scaled back their ground campaign somewhat. But they did not follow Austin’s guidance on using mostly precision munitions accompanied by targeted special operations raids, instead continuing to bombard Gaza with unguided “dumb bombs.”

On Dec. 2, Austin turned up the pressure.

“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population,” he said at the defense forum. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Nearly half of the air-to-ground munitions that Israel has used in Gaza have been unguided, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment, which Pentagon officials say may help explain the high civilian death toll. Even the precision-guided munitions that the United States military has favored in its campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan produced high civilian casualties. Unguided munitions pose an even greater threat to civilians, analysts say.

An Israeli military official acknowledged that the Israeli air force used unguided “dumb bombs” in Gaza but said the U.S. intelligence assessment was too high.

The United States and Britain used dumb bombs over Dresden, Germany in 1945, killing about 25,000 people. But “military doctrine has evolved since World War II days, and today, the preferred doctrine in highly dense urban areas is to do intelligence-led precision strikes with precision munitions, and special operations forces,” Gen. Mark Milley, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview.

“You have to go slower, with greater precision, and it’s going to take longer and it’s harder, but you have to do that — that’s what Austin is trying to get at,” Milley said. “He is a soldier. He has experience in combat operations. He understands the military instrument and how you should use it.”

Speaking to reporters Monday after meetings in Tel Aviv, Austin said U.S. support for Israel was “unshakable” and that the country “has every right to defend itself.”

He added, “As I’ve said, protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral duty and a strategic imperative.”

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