Harrison Mann on Escalation in the Middle East

The U.S. Army major and intelligence analyst recently resigned over Gaza. With Lebanon in the balance, he walks FOREVER WARS through some nightmare scenarios

Harrison Mann on Escalation in the Middle East
Harrison Mann

The U.S. Army major and intelligence analyst recently resigned over Gaza. With Lebanon in the balance, he walks FOREVER WARS through some nightmare scenarios 

Edited by Sam Thielman

LAST MONTH, MAJ. HARRISON MANN, a promising U.S. Army officer and intelligence analyst, posted on LinkedIn that "the incredible shame and guilt" of institutionally abetting Israel's destruction of Gaza had compelled him to end his military career. 

Maj. Mann's decision made him the senior-most U.S. servicemember to register such objections. It prompted widespread coverage, and sparked conversations in military circles about the meaning of his resignation. Parochially, I was struck by this passage of his post: "[A]s the descendent of European Jews, I was raised in a particularly unforgiving moral environment when it came to the topic of bearing responsibility for ethnic cleansing… where the paramount importance of 'never again' and the inadequacy of 'just following orders' were oft repeated." You can watch interviews Mann gave, post-separation, to Amy Goodman for Democracy Now and Mehdi Hasan for Zeteo.

A little more than a month after Mann's resignation post, Israel claims to be wrapping up large-scale operations in Rafah while the pressures for escalation on a different front—southern Lebanon and northern Israel—are starting to feel overwhelming. With FOREVER WARS often focused on the regional reverberations of Gaza, I wanted to borrow Mann's expertise for a conversation about what to expect should Israel and Hezbollah enter into full-scale conflict. What would the U.S. do? Could it avoid getting drawn in militarily? What will Iranian and proxy reactions look like, not just in Lebanon but around the Middle East? At the end, we talk about Mann's experience of resigning—and he shares some powerful insights about that—and he addresses whether Gaza looks different to those inside the U.S. security apparatus than it does to you and me on the outside. 

Before we get into what I think is a great conversation that I think addresses a lot of people's questions about the future contours of the violence in and emerging from Gaza, let me plug an upcoming appearance that would get lost at the bottom of this edition. On Thursday July 11 at 7 p.m., journalist Elle Reeve and I will be in conversation at The Strand to discuss Elle's excellent forthcoming book Black Pill: How I Witnessed The Darkest Corners of The Internet Come To Life, Poison Society and Capture American Politics. You'll also soon see a Q&A I conducted with Elle here at FOREVER WARS. If people like the format, I'll do more of these for you—so, y'know, subscribe. 

With that out of the way, here's my interview with Harrison Mann. We spoke on the morning of Tuesday, June 25. I edited this transcript for clarity. 

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Harrison, thank you for talking to FOREVER WARS. Can you tell people what your experience was as an intelligence analyst focused on the Middle East? 

HARRISON MANN: Sure. So I spent three years at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Among the positions I had was all-source analyst, writing reports and assessments on both militaries in the region and then political-military decisionmaking. On top of that, I was the executive officer, functionally the assistant to the director of all Middle East and Africa analysis for the agency. I also had a lot of visibility on everything we produced and the decision-making in the intelligence community around the October 7 attacks and what followed.

So to go into it, considering what we're seeing in the news right now, how much does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s discussion of a scale-down in Rafah have to do with making troops available for an operation in Lebanon?

Yeah, the sad thing is that it seems like the first time Netanyahu shows an interest in reducing the amount of violence against people in Gaza is just so that he can reposition forces for a potential offensive into Lebanon. And I would only say that, you know, until now, he has not demonstrated a lot of interest in going easy on Hamas, or on the Palestinians in Gaza in general. So I think what you're getting at here is pretty plausible. 

 I think the better question is: Who can endure their capital getting bombed more?

Before October 7, and even actually after October 7, the Israelis have always considered Hezbollah their number one threat, and Hamas was kind of an ancillary issue, and I think they've kept that in mind throughout the past nine months. Unfortunately, despite the Israeli military's struggling performance in Gaza, I worry that there's still some Israeli leadership, including Israeli military leadership, that holds on to their traditional strategic thinking: that not only is Hezbollah the number-one threat to Israel, but that it's inevitable that Israel has a decisive conflict with them that defeats them in some way, for once and for all. And that's the thinking that we saw right after October 7, where the Israelis were about to launch a preemptive strike on Hezbollah. 

To his credit, President Biden talked them out of it. He seemed to talk them out of it not on the basis that it would be disastrous for Israel, which it would be, but because their plan was based on faulty intelligence that Hezbollah was about to launch a major operation into Israel. 

What happened the last time the IDF fought Hezbollah? What are the differences in capabilities amongst the combatants between then and now?

That's a great question. It's very pertinent now. We should remember that, you know, the Israelis are 0 for 2 against Hezbollah. Their 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon ended in a sort of political victory for Hezbollah, as the Israeli people basically demanded the withdrawal of their troops unilaterally. Then what was supposed to be their decisive military victory came in 2006,  when Israel invaded Lebanon in response to Hezbollah kidnapping some Israeli soldiers. That conflict has been studied extensively, both by the Israelis and the U.S., with the goal of understanding how Israelis failed so badly. 

The conditions then are not exactly the same as now. I think that the Israelis in 2006 kind of made every bad decision possible at both the tactical and strategic level. Their military was totally unprepared. And if you go back and you look at the decisions of their commanders, they really don't make a lot of sense. The Israeli military leadership kind of learned from that experience, but as we see in Gaza, they're not dramatically more effective than they were in Lebanon 2006. 

Probably the biggest change in the capability gap between the two forces is that Hezbollah is dramatically stronger, certainly qualitatively, in terms of the weaponry at its disposal than it was in 2006. Just to briefly compare the Gaza front with a potential "Northern Front" for Israel, Hezbollah also operates out of a network of tunnels that's even deeper and more complex than what Hamas has. They are built into mountain positions, not under relatively flat terrain. So it's really easy to imagine that if Israel tries a large ground operation, it's going to be really disastrous for them. And there's really nothing they can hope to achieve without a large ground operation. You can't destroy fighting positions and weapons stockpiles that are dug 50 feet deep into a mountain with just air power.

So recently, we saw Hezbollah release what appeared to be drone footage taken over Israel, seemingly indicating what would be attacked should the Israelis invade. What kind of a strike into Israel would we likely see from Hezbollah, and how long can Hezbollah sustain a campaign against the IDF?

Let me first point out that the decision to release those videos is indicative of Hezbollah and its leader still hoping to avoid war. That is meant to be a deterrent, not escalatory. They are making these threats in the hope that Israel will not invade Lebanon and will not, you know, blow up half of Beirut.

In terms of what a Hezbollah attack would look like: They have something that they didn't have in 2006, which is this massive arsenal of precision weaponry of different grades. It's certain that they can range the entirety of the State of Israel, and that they can do it for some time. The answer to the math problem of who will run out of munitions first is something I don't think anybody in the public knows. But I think the better question is: Who can endure their capital getting bombed more? 

Hezbollah does not want Israel to blow up Beirut. Since Israel can't really easily hit Hezbollah's hard targets buried underground, they will attempt to punish and compel Hezbollah leadership by attacking the civilian areas where their political base is located. I think you're familiar with the Dahiya Doctrine, which is not necessarily a written doctrine, but it's the idea that they'll just blow up the Beirut suburbs that Hezbollah controls to try and compel Hezbollah to change its military behavior. But I think the appetite among Israelis to see rockets that do not get intercepted and overwhelm Israel's air defenses raining down on Haifa and Tel Aviv is much lower. 

If Hezbollah really feels like Israel is trying to launch a war of annihilation against them—which is to say Hezbollah stops holding back—then in addition to some of the military and infrastructure sites that they showed off in the videos you mentioned, they have the capability to strike commercial centers and a wide range of infrastructure. An Israeli official in charge of electricity for the country recently warned that Israel's electric-power infrastructure could be very quickly knocked out by any kind of attack. I think a Hezbollah attack in earnest would look like something that people in Israel have not seen for a long time. 

It's unclear how much Netanyahu or even [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant are factoring this in and what their expectations are. What happens if Hezbollah decides to launch, you know, 1000 rockets in a day? And I would just add that all the Israeli calculations continue to be based on this idea that the U.S. will provide pretty much any support they ask for. But even with the U.S. expanding the amount of air defense that it provides to Israel, I'm not sure it would fundamentally change how much stuff actually lands and hits its target in Israel.

That's a good segue. Just this week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the U.S. can't aid Israel against Hezbollah like it did against the April 13 Iranian drone and missile assault. Some of that is surely a function of geographic U.S. asset distribution—


—while some of that is a political message to the IDF. What would you expect the U.S. role to be in an Israel-Hezbollah conflict, and how actively could the U.S. military be drawn in?

Yeah, that is my biggest worry, just from the American perspective, forgetting the humanitarian side of things for a moment.

I think they will be asking us to help them bomb things in Lebanon.

Look, we saw Netanyahu do an English-language video last week complaining about the holdup of what's really a nominal amount of munitions. That was intended to embarrass and possibly compel President Biden. And the administration reacted instantly and kind of was eager to please as soon as that video came out. So even if we have provided some warnings to Netanyahu, to the Israelis, that we are not going to put the the weight of the U.S. Air Force behind Israel, given the amount of damage that both the Israeli military and the Israeli homeland will suffer if they launch an invasion of Lebanon, it's very difficult for me to imagine Netanyahu not reaching out in very public ways to embarrass Biden and the United States again. So we're now asking whether the administration, which has very rarely said no to Netanyahu in a serious way, will finally take a stand and refuse him at a time when Israel will actually be suffering. There will be extensive footage of neighborhoods in Israel getting struck with missiles, or burning. There will be extensive footage that Hezbollah will put out of its ambushes on Israeli troops. I don't have confidence that that will be the moment when we finally say, 'You guys are on your own.'

And to follow up on that, what would the U.S. not letting Israel be on its own probably look like?

Yeah, I think the 'Easy' option would be providing air support outside Lebanese airspace, in Iraq and Syria. [A transcription error mangled this sentence, which we have corrected. FOREVER WARS regrets the error.—Sam.] We've seen that, particularly since October 7, when the Israelis are having a problem with an Iranian-supplied or Iranian-linked group, they go after Iranian targets, or what they think are Iranian targets, in Syria. In a war with Hezbollah, I think there would be incredible temptation, and not just for the Israelis, to keep doing that, and for us to perhaps help them strike supply lines going through Syria and Iraq that keep Hezbollah's war effort going. I think that will seem like an easier request from the Israelis than directly bombing Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. 

But of course that also creates the risk that we are going to hit Hezbollah troops or IRGC [Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] officers if we're going after these lines of communication. Even if we do that, I mean, that's not going to stop Hezbollah from being able to shoot rockets into Israel. It might slow it or obstruct it over the long term, but it's not going to solve the immediate problem that Israel has. So then, once again, I think they will be asking us to help them bomb things in Lebanon.

And again, it's a very bad idea. I think everybody in the U.S. government knows that it's a very bad idea to put the United States in a position where Hezbollah feels like we are a direct participant in a war of annihilation against them. But again, it's hard to imagine that Netanyahu will not ask us, and what happens after that?

Along that depressing line of inquiry, what U.S. assets can we expect the Iranian coalition to target? Would that look different from what Iran's post October 7 strategy has been thus far?

Yeah. So I think both Hezbollah and Iran still have a healthy fear of Israel and a much healthier fear of the United States. They have sought to avoid war, to avoid serious consequences to themselves, while doing basically the bare minimum they can to show that they stand with the Palestinians. From October 7 on, [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah gave a speech saying, 'Hey, October 7 was great, but it was totally the Palestinians.' He sort of defensively responded to critics saying that Hezbollah was not doing enough by saying, 'No, look, we're drawing forces to the north.' 

Right. Both of his big speeches were about Hezbollah not entering the war in earnest.

Exactly. They were about proving that they were participating in the group project with Iran and the 'Axis of Resistance.' 

Escalation is going to be super dangerous for us. The extent of it to date has been the Houthis—of their own volition, not really under direction from Iran—attacking U.S. ships and any ships in the Red Sea they can get their hands on; and then the Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria attacking U.S. positions, along with Tower 22 in Jordan as well.

There are a lot of juicy targets available for Iran and their proxies. 

So we already have forces in this surprisingly large number of little bases that are pretty isolated and pretty exposed in Iraq and Syria. And then we also have larger bases around the Gulf, and I think those are relatively vulnerable targets as well, and ones that I would be surprised if Iran or Iranian proxies did not have contingency plans for how to attack. I worked at the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain for a while. We have air defense assets in that country, but it's not a fortress, and it's a big target. And so I think those will be appealing options for Iran—or probably for Iranian proxies, so Iran can still claim that it's not getting directly involved. 

Then on top of that, we have all of the Gulf countries that host us. They are infinitely more vulnerable, and they're also much more afraid of Iran than we are. I think we're going to see some level of diplomatic conflict between the U.S. and those countries. They're going to be making every effort to ensure that the U.S. is not launching any operations out of the air bases that they host. As we've seen, it's really not that hard to blow up Saudi petroleum facilities and the same applies to the rest of the region. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi already have this long-standing fear that the U.S. can't protect them from Iran and its proxies. Which is, in an absolute sense, true—we can't totally protect them. 

Just to summarize, I think that between our tiny, very vulnerable bases in Iraq and Syria, our larger bases in the Gulf countries, and then the Gulf countries' infrastructure themselves, there are a lot of juicy targets available for Iran and their proxies. 

So back to Gaza. Netanyahu is now saying that what he grossly calls "mowing" operations, to prevent Hamas reconstitution, remain for the IDF after its invasion of Rafah ends. That set my counterinsurgency alarm off. What resistance should we expect the IDF to encounter for such operations in Gaza?

We should expect them to continue to face the same resistance that they've been facing for a while. There's no doubt that they've killed a lot of Hamas fighters, but I don't think anybody, including Israel, has any clear idea about how many, or what percentage of Hamas' fighting force or Hamas' armaments they've taken out of the fight. When the IDF announces that they've cleared this-or-that area, or moved through this-or-that area, like they are in Rafah, I don't think that they have any way of knowing whether they killed all the Hamas fighters there, or whether those guys just got in the tunnels and went somewhere else.

In northern Gaza, where the IDF launched major operations at great collateral costs, they're back in those areas again, because Hamas fighters reemerged. So I don't think they're anywhere near destroying Hamas. I mean, this is fundamentally an impossible goal. This is what Israeli military leaders have said, too. 

More personally, what was it like to oppose this genocide while knowing that you and others inside the military machinery were not setting the policy, and a few people inside the Biden administration several levels up were?

Anybody in the military or any part of our national security bureaucracy understands that their job is not to make policy, it's to execute it. At best, they can provide information that will help policymakers make better decisions. And I worked with people who were career expert analysts on this issue. The quality of the content that they produced and the rigor with which they produced analysis showed me that the problem was not the fog of war. The problem was not lack of information within the bureaucracy or lack of understanding about what was happening in Gaza or what the consequences of Israeli operations there would be. 

Once you read what's out there, and you have an idea of the information diet that our policymakers in the Pentagon and beyond are getting, you still see that the policy determination is that we're essentially going to support Israel in every way no matter what. Then you understand that change is not coming from the inside on this one. There are many other instances, on lower profile topics, where that mid-level officer, the action officer, the GS-14, actually does make an impact, because they're somebody who feels passionately and has a good idea and is well informed on the topic. This was not that case. At this point, every bit of persuasive information available to help somebody make a productive decision was available, and it was available early.

You feel especially helpless when you are part of this and you know that you're contributing towards it, and you know that it's wrong, and you know that a lot of other people know that it's wrong, but you're still all supporting this campaign in some way or another. So that is a very frustrating feeling, and it does feel powerless. 

Anybody could have told you back in October, back in November, that we'd get somewhere like where we are today. 

But I'll just say, since I resigned publicly, a few more people have resigned. Just today [Tuesday], in the Washington Post, there's an Air Force non-commissioned officer who left over this, as well as some civilian employees who have resigned and no, that did not change the policy. I think people in and out of the government are well aware that the policy is pretty fixed and it's in the hands of just a few guys. But everything that's happened to date in terms of working towards ending this war has been a little unprecedented, at least in terms of U.S. support for Israel. I don't think it's enough, and it's not happening fast enough, but the conversation in the U.S. has undoubtedly changed. The politics around it have changed a little bit, I can tell you, the conversation where I worked in the Middle East section of the Defense Intelligence Agency has changed. I know that because my friends who are still there told me.

I'm not particularly hopeful about the future, I think you can tell that. But if this does end, what I did and what these other people did, in retrospect, are going to look like tiny, tiny drops in the bucket that eventually contributed to this outcome, and to change the U.S. support for Israel. Everything's impossible until it isn't. It's very cliche. But in ten years, we don't know how this will look. 

All true. Finally, what do you want people outside of the security apparatus to know about how the Gaza genocide looked to those inside of the security apparatus?

I want to be clear that everybody who followed this issue from inside the U.S. government—whether it's the military, the intel world, the State Department, USAID—was fully aware of not only everything that was happening in terms of destruction and civilian deaths in Gaza, but also the expected consequences and expected trajectory of the Israeli campaign in Gaza.

What I've told you is not really my unique analysis or has anything to do with my own personal genius judgments. I think they're widely shared, or widely at least understood by everybody who works on this topic professionally. And I emphasize that because I think even in the past month, we've seen demands from our government that the Israelis must have a day-after plan, or that the Israelis still must work towards reducing civilian casualties, or that they must work towards a number of these sort of very basic steps that it was clear nine months ago that they weren't going to do anything about. One of the reasons that I'm still talking and still a little angry is because this has been a really slow-motion train wreck. Anybody could have told you back in October, back in November, that we'd get somewhere like where we are today. 

So those of us on the outside are not seeing something completely different than what you, behind the veil of official secrecy and tremendous technological capability, are seeing inside?

Yeah, obviously folks in the business have a level of granularity, and they will learn things sooner and in greater detail, as well as learning some things that will never come out. But in terms of the broad trends and general political-military factors, we did not understand anything that was not visible to the informed public. 

And look, I started my resignation in November because what I could see on the inside validated what a lot of people were saying on the outside, which is that this war is going to be a disaster. It's going to kill these people. The Israelis are going to conduct it in this really destructive and counterproductive way.

Harrison Mann, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you, Spencer.

WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, the superhero spy thriller I co-wrote with my friend Evan Narcisse and which the masterful Jesús Merino illustrated, is available for purchase in a hardcover edition! If you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics

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