In his landmark paper “Why big nations lose small wars?” Andrew Mack argued that asymmetry in strategy, technology, and national will create an Achilles heel for great powers. An asymmetric war is one where there is considerable disparity between the two contending parties in terms of technology and resources. To meet those shortcomings, the weaker group wages an asymmetric war and protracts the conflict to exhaust the bigger group’s resources and will to fight. The U.S.-Vietnam War (1965-1975) was the perfect example of those conflicts. The North Vietnamese communist guerrillas protracted the conflict and waged tunnel warfare against a much larger and superior adversary, the U.S., and eventually, Americans were forced to withdraw from Vietnam without achieving what they intended at the time of the invasion. A second case study is of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (2001-2021), where, initially, Americans were successful in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Mullah Umar, the founding father of the Taliban, famously said to the Americans, “You may have watches, but we have the time.”
Taliban fighters retreated into the mountains of Afghanistan. They used the rugged geography of Afghanistan to their favor by waging asymmetric warfare to exhaust the American resources and will to fight. Eventually, Americans withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, and the Taliban took back control of Kabul once again. Similarly, Hamas, the Palestinian insurgents who have been fighting against the Israelis since their inception in 1987 during the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising), is using similar tactics of asymmetric warfare. Hamas launched Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7 against Israel and, penetrated deep into the Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip, and stormed some of the Israeli forward operating bases. Since then, the Israelis have been raining missiles and bombs on the Gaza Strip ruthlessly with airstrikes, mostly killing civilians. Hamas is still very much intact and is prolonging the conflict to exhaust Israelis and make them commit the error of invading Gaza by ground.
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have surrounded the Gaza Strip, and there are reports and official statements from the Israeli side that the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip has begun. The ground invasion of Gaza is easier said than done because, on the surface, the Gaza Strip is only 41 km in longitude and 11-12 km in latitude, but the real problem lies beneath the surface of Gaza. IDF calls those Hamas tunnels as “Metro.” It is estimated that this Hamas Metro is spread over the entire Gaza Strip and is approximately 500 km long zig-zag of tunnels. The depth of those tunnels is 50 meters (150 ft.) at some locations and is made up of concrete. Hamas utilizes those tunnels for different purposes, which include as a shelter during Israeli airstrikes, storage of supplies, manufacturing Qassam and Grad rockets, and smuggling goods from Egypt into Gaza.
Those tunnels are the sole lifeline for the people of Gaza as they are living under the blockade of Israel, which controls land, air, and sea. Hamas has built paved roads and tracks inside those tunnels, which are used for transporting goods, fuel, supplies, rockets, and fighters from one location to another.
Israelis have reportedly used bunker-buster munitions against Hamas positions in northwestern Gaza in this recent conflict, but are yet to be confirmed. Bunker Busters are pretty powerful and lethal munitions that can penetrate deep into the ground before detonating and are capable of destroying buried, hardened targets inside the earth. Bunker Busters were first used in World War II by Allied forces against German underground rocket facilities. Israelis have GBU-28 laser-guided bunker-buster munitions in their arsenal. GBU-28 is a 5000-pound powerful bomb carried by a fighter jet, and reportedly, it can penetrate 60 feet into the earth and 10 feet into the hardened concrete structure. The current arsenal of Israeli bunker-busters may not prove as useful against Hamas tunnels because those tunnels are built deeper and more robust than the penetration capacity of Israeli bunker-busters. In 2021, Israel requested the US to procure a newer and more lethal version of GBU-72, but the deal has yet to go through. It is important to note that, according to the Geneva Convention, using bunker-busters in densely populated areas is unlawful. Israelis have been violating the Geneva Convention with their use of bunker-buster munitions in Gaza in 2014, 2019, and 2021 in their conflict with Hamas.
Moreover, Israel is already under pressure from the north by Hezbollah since the start of this conflict. Hezbollah may not have the capability to launch a ground invasion of Israel because of its shortcomings. Still, they are very much capable of hurting and engaging Israel on the Northern front to deflect its military might from Gaza. To this date, Hezbollah has been successful in diverting the IDF resources from Gaza by continuously attacking Israel from the North. Israel has reportedly called 360000 reservists to duty, and a significant chunk of those reservists are deployed on the Lebanese front to counter the threat of Hezbollah and to deter the likely ground invasion of Israel by Hezbollah. Israel has also evacuated 28 settlements near its border with Lebanon, and those settlements are now housing IDF reservists in a bid to prepare for a possible war with Hezbollah.
Iran and its proxies operating out of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are not in a position to invade Israel by ground due to the asymmetry in military might unless a regional alliance takes shape and a significant power like Russia steps in.
What they can do and have been doing since the start of this conflict is pressuring the Israelis and Americans. Shia militias are continuously targeting American assets and bases in Syria and Iraq in a bid to refrain Americans from supporting Israel militarily and make them agree to the ceasefire.
The bottom line is that Hamas may appear to be a rag-tag militia in a small geographical zone, but they have learned the art of fighting below the strength of a bigger adversary. Israelis are facing stiff resistance in the Gaza Strip, and their causalities’ are rising with each passing day. The rise in IDF casualties would increase the public pressure on the Israeli government to put an end to this invasion and call back their troops. The current Israeli regime led by Benjamin Netanyahu is already under pressure from the liberal and opposing political factions of Israel. The stiff resistance of Hamas and war-opposing voices within Israel, coupled with continuous attacks from Iranian-backed resistance groups, would make life difficult for Israelis to make the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip a success story.
The author is currently working as a Research Assistant at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. His research focuses on the Middle East and its security issues, strategic stability, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation.