June 04, 2009

The Lebanese Armed Forces: The Case for Continuing Aid -- Come Hizballah or High Water

I have said before that -- now that I am no longer based in Beirut -- this blog is probably not the go-to place for in-depth commentary on the Lebanese elections. But in the next few paragraphs I am going to make a case for continuing aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) no matter the outcome of this weekend's poll.

The arguments against continuing aid to the LAF are well known and will be advanced by both Israel's more hard-core supporters in the Congress as well as some thoughtful people out of government who follow this issue closely. Elections matter, they will say, and Lebanon cannot expect us to continue to provide arms and training to the LAF if Hiz-bu-freaking-allah is leading the government. Additionally, David Schenker -- who worked this issue for the Department of Defense and who continues to follow Lebanon closely -- has a series of grave and not unreasonable concerns about the direction in which the LAF is heading.

These are persuasive arguments. In the following few paragraphs, though, I am going to lay out a case for why the United States should continue its support to the LAF along pre-2009 levels.

  1. As Bilal Saab and others have argued, a coherent U.S. strategy in Lebanon requires long-term investments in the institutions of the state -- not money given depending on who happens to win a few extra seats in the Metn. Aid to the LAF has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Lebanon since the end of that country's civil war and should not be radically altered following this election. Because...
  2. Nothing is really going to change. Hizballah is already in the government. There are rumors, in fact, that Hizballah will take fewer seats in the next cabinet than in this one -- even if their coalition wins. So we have been giving money to a government of which Hizballah is a part for some time now. Again, why should a few seats in the Metn change U.S. policy?
  3. Hizballah doesn't need the arms we're giving the LAF. How effective do you think a few old tanks and some basic close air support would be against the IDF in a fight? Not very -- ask any Palestinian or Lebanese who fought in 1982 how well militias perform when they attempt to fight the Israelis using modern and advanced weapons platforms. As far as the combat was concerned in 2006, Hizballah hung in there with the IDF largely through really competent small units fighting with home-field advantage, a well-prepared rocket campaign, some pretty good information operations, and highly effective use of anti-tank munitions. (Not to mention a very good information campaign and a plan to provide essential services to its constituency both before and after the fighting ended. And I'm not even going to get into the IDF's myriad strategic and operational failings.) If I am a commander in the IDF and I think Hizballah is going to fight this next war with crappy hand-me-down tanks, I am licking my chops along the Blue Line. Those arms we are giving to the LAF are intended to help the LAF content with domestic threats. And against a group like Fatah al-Islam, rudimentary armor capabilities and (proposed) close air support platforms can have a devastating effect. Which leads me to my final point.
  4. Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan. Once upon a time, way back in 1989, U.S. policy-makers made a very logical and seemingly intelligent decision to suspend our aid to the Pakistani military. Acting under the Pressler Amendment, George H.W. Bush (not a dumb man, that one) decided that unless we could determine Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons, we should suspend the delivery of some much-prized F-16 aircraft. Again, this was a sound decision at the time. But looking back on it from 2009, it has cost us dearly. We do not have the kind of close ties with the Pakistani officer corps that we really need right now largely because we were "divorced" between 1989 and 2001 -- and those relationships cannot be built anew overnight. In 2009, we need the Pakistani military to fight Islamist militants in that country and have discovered that a) our two militaries cannot agree on a common threat and that b) we the United States do not have ties as close to the Pakistani Army as does the Taliban. In the future, I am guessing the ungoverned spaces in Lebanon -- the Palestinian refugee camps, specifically -- will continue to harbor violent transnational groups. We will badly need a local partner -- even an imperfect one -- to combat these threats. We should be trying to nurture relationships with the next generation of the Lebanese officer corps and security services if we're serious about the threat these transnational groups pose. (And if you don't see these groups as a problem, read this book.)

If you ask anyone in U.S. Central Command or the Department of Defense, they will point toward our aid to the Lebanese as being important for securing U.S. interests in the region. Those interests do not go away if a coalition including Hizballah wins this next election. Now this does not mean that the United States simply bankrolls the entire LAF -- as some people apparently believe that we should. The LAF, according to the CSIS, needs about $1 billion in immediate investment, and it is unreasonable to expect the United States to underwrite that sum. Because it also needs internal reforms that have nothing to do with external aid, and until those reforms are undertaken or until Lebanon has an agreed-upon national defense strategy, money will continue to be spent toward a bloated officer corps and to build the kind of military organization Lebanon's higher command wants rather than that which best serves the nation's interest.*

P.S. While we're on the Lebanese elections, I would be remiss if I did not recommend the profile of Michel Aoun by Elias Muhanna (Qifa Nabki to many of you) in this weekend's National. A timely reminder that the opposition is not just Hizballah. It's also a cantankerous old man and his followers.

*Lebanon is a delightful case study for the "emulation" school of military innovation theory. Some senior commanders in the LAF, having grown up in the armored community, want Lebanon to have a mechanized army with the latest and greatest tanks and vehicles. Never mind the fact that such an army -- due mostly to Lebanon's size -- would get crushed by either the IDF or the Syrian Army in a conventional fight. Sometimes armies desire to look like what they think a "modern" army should look like rather than what would be most militarily effective. Militias can do the same thing -- just look at the PLO in 1982. (Why did they need all that artillery and vehicles? So the IAF would have something to shoot at?) Effective military organizations, meanwhile, adopt the kind of force structure that makes sense in terms of their threat environment and the kinds of conflicts they expect to face. Pop quiz: How many tanks does Hizballah own? ... Exactly.