From David Schenker
A lot of people have asked me lately about U.S. funding of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The current interest in U.S. assistance to the LAF comes as little surprise: Congress is currently reviewing the FY09 budget, which is said to include a significant aid package for the LAF.
From 2005 to 2008, the U.S. Government provided over $1 billion to Lebanon, including nearly $380 million in assistance to the LAF. During this time, Washington’s generosity toward the LAF made Lebanon the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance per capita, after Israel.
Several recent developments have sparked the debate about this previously uncontroversial U.S. assistance provided to the military of the only pro-West, democratically elected Arab government. First, as a result of Hezbollah’s May 2008 blitz on Beirut, the Shiite militia cum terrorist organization has rejoined the Lebanese government, with important de jure powers (i.e., the blocking third in the parliament). Questions are also being raised about the utility of funding the LAF, particularly following the organization’s actions—or inactions—this past May. Essentially, the LAF was missing in action. At a minimum, the army did not protect national institutions; some accuse the LAF of colluding with Hezbollah in the raid.
At the same time, statements made by March 14th ruling coalition leaders in July regarding Samir Kuntar have eroded some of their government’s appeal. In particular, in the run-up to the impending prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel, several top leaders of March 14th have indicated that they will join Hezbollah at the hero’s welcome for Kuntar—the terrorist best known for crushing the skull of a four-year-old Israeli girl in 1979. In the process, March 14th has seemingly blessed Hezbollah’s continued possession of weapons.
The debate regarding U.S. support for the LAF has been fueled by a contentious and factually inaccurate op-ed in the New York Times written by Nicholas Noe in mid-June. In his article, “A Fair Fight for the Lebanese Army,” Noe claimed that Israel was preventing the LAF from acquiring the type of armaments—advanced anti-tank weapons, armed attack helos, and intelligence gathering equipment—it requires.
Because the Bush Administration caved to Israeli demands, Noe claims, “the army was left without the equipment that would have enabled it to be a more forceful mediator in the street battles involving Hezbollah and its rivals” in May. Noe likewise claims,
this lack of equipment also contributed to the military’s inability last summer to quickly roust a group of [Fatah al-Islam] Islamist militants from a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
Finally, Noe argues that if the LAF receives this kind of advanced equipment in future, it will help Lebanon to solve the problem of Hezbollah’s weapons:
Give the Lebanese an army able to meet the perceived threats emanating from Israel (primarily involving water, territory and a possible future expulsion of Palestinians to Lebanon), and then, Hezbollah has said, its independent weaponry can be tackled.
No doubt, the Times received a flood of critical letters about Noe’s article. Not surprisingly, it did not run any. Nevertheless, I still think it’s worth debunking some of the more egregious inaccuracies and bad thinking in Noe’s piece.
Prima facie, Noe’s article neglects to even mention the deep divisions in the LAF that are the primary constraint on the long-term prospects for making the military an effective national institution. Yet despite these limitations, Washington has fully backed the LAF. Indeed, contrary to Noe’s assertion, the United States expedited the shipment of over 40 C-130 transport planes brimming with military materiel to Beirut immediately after the outbreak of fighting in Nahr el Bared. This was no mean feat. It required a lot of creative thinking—the United States used an ACSA mechanism to dispatch the weapons and ammo quickly—and a real effort to cut through standard timelines and procedures.
The materiel provided by the United States was what was required for the operation and what could be absorbed by the LAF. Shipments at the time included over 10 million rounds of all types of ammunition, as well as—according to the State Department—”the same front-line weapons that the U.S. military troops are currently using, including assault rifles, automatic grenade launchers, advanced sniper weapons systems, anti-tank weapons, and the most modern urban warfare bunker weapons.” This and subsequent assistance has not been subject to Israeli veto, but rather is based on a careful assessment of LAF operational requirements carried out by the United States and France.
Moreover, Noe falsely claims that the United States blocked the transfer of rockets to be employed by UAE-donated Gazelle attack helicopters, and that, “As a result, soldiers were forced to drop shells from the helicopters by hand, destroying much of [Nahr el Bared].” What actually happened was that the LAF ingeniously retrofitted their U.S.-made Bell UH-I “Huey” helicopters—with Washington’s blessing—with hydraulic systems to drop their own retooled bombs targeting Fatah al-Islam terrorists. Here is how it was done (click on thumbnails for images):
So Noe gets it wrong on the helos and the arms transfers. His assessment that, once the LAF is “able to meet the perceived threats emanating from Israel,” Hezbollah’s weapons “can be tackled,” also strains credulity. Hezbollah has an ever-expanding list of prerequisites for disarmament, ranging from the liberation of Jerusalem to the end of Lebanese government corruption. Noe’s supposition that Hezbollah’s weapons will be on the table when the LAF is better armed is more wishful thinking than reality.
No doubt, Israel has some concerns about the LAF. Based on the LAF’s apparent collusion with Hezbollah in the firing of the Chinese-made Iranian-provided C-802 land-to-sea missile—which hit and almost sank an Israeli SAAR 5-class warship during the summer 2006 war—these concerns are well founded. But the fear that the LAF would somehow transfer U.S.-made weapons to the Shiite militia is likely not at the top of the Israelis’ list. First, the LAF has a very good record in this regard; and second, Hezbollah has received an arsenal from Moscow, Syria, and Iran that is so highly advanced, that it need not covet LAF stocks.
In the coming weeks, Washington may choose to modify its aid package to the LAF. If this occurs, it will be because of Hezbollah’s recent political and military gains, not Israeli complaints. By blaming Israel for a weak LAF, Noe is essentially repeating Hezbollah’s justification for retaining its army and arsenal.
It is in Washington’s long-term interest to see the LAF develop into a strong national institution. But it’s important to understand that the strength of this institution does not primarily rely on its capabilities, but rather on its will to take on difficult missions on orders from the democratically-elected government of Lebanon. No amount of U.S. military assistance will change this current dynamic.
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