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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Mar 03rd
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Intelligence arrow A strong Lebanese army is good for Israel
A strong Lebanese army is good for Israel PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mara Karlin   
Monday, 23 March 2009


As one of the architects of the United States' effort to rapidly train and equip the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) since 2006, I am continually confronted by Israelis questioning why the U.S. government is working so hard to build the forces. "They'll never confront terrorists," some say. "Any weapons you give the LAF will go directly to Hezbollah," others assert. 

While taking on the responsibility of building a military is weighty, I strongly believe that the U.S. effort to assist the LAF has been conducted in a prudent fashion. Furthermore, by extending the Lebanese government's sovereignty throughout Lebanon and diminishing the operating space of unhelpful actors, this effort is deepening Israeli security.

U.S.-Lebanon defense relations burgeoned considerably over the last three years, during which time the U.S. has provided the LAF with nearly $400 million in security assistance. Lebanon is now among the top recipients of U.S. security aid (per capita). Last fall, senior U.S. government officials held the inaugural bilateral defense talks with the LAF, a forum that the Pentagon leadership holds only with close allies. And in a watershed visit last month, LAF Commander Jean Kahwaji met with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, the first visit by a sitting LAF commander to his U.S. counterpart.
The charge that the LAF will not confront terrorists ignores the real steps the LAF has taken in recent years. Thousands of its troops have been deployed to southern Lebanon since the 2006 war, in an effort to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1701. It has confiscated numerous weapons caches and, no less important, it represents an important step in the Lebanese government's effort to expand its presence throughout the country.

In 2007, the LAF successfully confronted Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian terrorist group, in a bloody urban war. Although Palestinian refugee camps had been "no-go" zones for decades, the LAF set a precedent when it responded positively to Beirut's order to enter the camp, particularly in light of Hezbollah secretary-general Nasrallah's foreboding statement that such a step would constitute the crossing of a "red line." While there have been instances of LAF failure to take action, particularly in May 2008, initial efforts have been encouraging. Moreover, as the LAF has grown stronger, discussions have begun on Hezbollah's weaponry, a previously taboo subject.

The second criticism - that materiel given to the LAF will leak to Hezbollah - ignores a little-known fact: Since the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war, the LAF has had an impeccable end-use monitoring record. I did not fully appreciate how thoroughly the LAF kept track of its materiel until the Second Lebanon War in 2006. When the Israel Defense Forces attacked a Lebanese military base, the LAF leadership wasted no time in providing the U.S. government with a list of the serial numbers of every item at the base. It was clear that the LAF did not want its reputation tarnished if any of those weapons were to be transferred to nefarious groups.

Because of the LAF's diligence in keeping track of its materiel, the U.S. government has felt comfortable supplying it with various equipment and weaponry. This assistance ranges from new vehicles and spare parts to increase the LAF's mobility, to hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds, enabling Lebanese soldiers to train better than when they possessed a mere three to five rounds per soldier three years ago.

Qualitatively, U.S. assistance has included sniper rifles - which Lebanese soldiers say played a critical role in the LAF's success against Fatah al-Islam - and the recently announced decision to provide Raven unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This last item, in particular, worries some Israelis. Weighing under 2.3 kilos and suggesting of an unwieldy paper airplane, the hand-held Raven enables soldiers to see in real time what their adversary is doing a few miles away. This deceptively small device plays a key role in U.S. efforts to foil use of insurgent-planted explosives in Iraq. Possession of Ravens will help put the government-sanctioned military on slightly more equal footing with Hezbollah, which has wielded an armed UAV (the Ababil) for years.

Considering the IDF's strength, the weaponry that has already been provided and will be in the future, such as the Ravens, does not even begin to interfere with Israel's qualitative military edge.

An empowered LAF strengthens the Lebanese government's ability to confront difficult situations. Of course, at the end of the day, a military force is only as capable as its political leadership permits it to be. While that leadership in Lebanese has taken important steps over the last few years, the challenges it faces will only continue to grow. As Israelis know well, Lebanon is a state whose government has not held a monopoly over arms for a long time. As a first step, however, the U.S. effort to train and equip the LAF in recent years has been conducted appropriately and has made real gains. Those in Israel who question it would do well to consider if they would prefer a weak LAF unable and unwilling to confront terrorists.

Mara E. Karlin has served in the U.S. Defense Department, most recently as special assistant to the under-secretary of defense for policy. She is currently a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. 

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