Arming The Lebanese Army

The status and condition of the Lebanese Armed Forces seem to be a hot topic not only in Lebanon, but also in Paris and Washington these days.  Here’s something that doesn’t happen too frequently: an article in an otherwise generally decent Lebanese_newspaper , supplanted in terms of context, accuracy (if only on use of quotation marks), and informative detail, by a US governmental (Department of Defense to be precise)  press_release .

The news item relates to the provision of weaponry by the US to the Lebanese army.   While both the article and the press release discuss nothing groundbreaking or novel, they are interesting to read in that they provide specific numbers on different kinds of equipment shipped and to be shipped by the US, and also background on training programs offered.  For example, we learn that:

  • Lebanese officers are attending several US military colleges, and the International Military Education and Training fund for Lebanon has grown from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008 to $2.1 million this year;
  • Since 2006, the US has funneled more than $400 million in foreign military sales money to Lebanon;
  • The US has sent 285 Humvees to Lebanon, and another 312 will arrive by March;
  • The US has also sent 200 trucks and 41 M-198 155 mm artillery pieces;
  • The Lebanese army will get night-vision equipment and some tactical unmanned aerial vehicles;
  • 12 million rounds of ammo, spare helicopter parts, shoulder-fired rockets will be supplied; and
  • The US is committed to getting Lebanon more modern tanks, and the U.S. military is working on delivering M-60A3 tanks.

These numbers are based on quotes from DoD senior official Chris Straub, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian affairs.  While up to this point everything seems nice and rosy, there are, as expected, very important caveats with regard to the quantity and the nature of equipment supplied to the Lebanese army. Indeed, Straub adds: “We don’t have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel’s qualitative military edge. That’s a U.S. commitment that we take very seriously.” (my emphasis)   The DoD press release then adds that “for example, the Lebanese army M-60 tanks are no match for Israel’s Mekava 4 main battle tanks.” What is the reason for this mismatch you ask? Straub explains: “We’re not trying to build up some juggernaut that could be threatening to anyone in the region, but to make the Lebanese armed forces capable in their own country.” 

Here is what is fundamentally wrong with this policy:  if the US thinks that propping up the Lebanese army just enough for it to provide a viable counterweight to Hezbollah will cause the latter to disintegrate or disappear, it will be sending weapons for a very, very long time with nothing changing in the situation on the ground. The reason for this is that Hezbollah is not competing with the Lebanese army ; Hezbollah is competing with Israel.  So long as the Lebanese army’s weaponry is weaker than that of Israel (which the US is on record as saying will be the case), Hezbollah will still be able to argue that the army is not strong enough to defend the country against Israeli aggression, and that its effort are needed.  And, indeed, it will be a very potent and correct argument to make.  The US policy in Lebanon basically seems to center on ways of fighting Hezbollah by proxy, that is, through the Lebanese army. But if Israel’s F-16’s were not able to annihilate Hezbollah in 2006, will the Lebanese army’s 597 Humvees be able to in 2009?