With so much discussion of a possible war between Israel and Hezbollah, there is a demand for an accurate analysis of the defense capabilities of Hezbollah. However, considering Israel’s vow to hold all of Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, a more appropriate analysis would be of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The LAF is known to be rather dysfunctional. It was absent during the siege of Beirut in May of 2008 by Hezbollah and did a remarkably inadequate job in its battles with Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el Bared that same year. Yet this is not necessarily a reflection of the LAF: until 2005, Syria kept the armed forces purposefully weak while at no time in modern (post 1989) Lebanese history has the LAF been properly equipped to adequately defend the country. The LAF has been receiving US military aid since 2005 (when Syria retreated from Lebanon and Washington saw the LAF as independent) and has recently asked for an increase in aid. Israel has tried to block military aid to Lebanon, worrying that the new arms would eventually be transferred to Hezbollah. While Lebanon has been asking for more technologically advanced equipment, an aid increased package from the US would still leave the LAF weaker than Hezbollah without a major defense review of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
There has been a long debate on the subject of American military aid to the LAF. Following the siege of Beirut by Hezbollah in 2008, an Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times by Nicholas Noe arguing that if the US included the type of strategic weapons that could appropriately defend Lebanon from internal as well as external threats (specifically Israel), Hezbollah would have little reason to maintain its formidable force, which, among other reasons, is held to protect Lebanon from Israel. Noe also argued that the QME agreement (qualitative military edge – the agreement between Israel and the US to keep the Israeli military stronger than any of its Arab counterparts) with Israel was the main factor in the decision not to send sophisticated military technology to the LAF. A response from David Schenker quickly was published by the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH). Schenker made three major points in refuting Noe’s original article: the LAF is deeply divided and fundamentally flawed (Schenker does not expand upon this idea unfortunately); the US, in 2008, sent over modern weapons and ammunition – used by the US army – without regard for the will of Israel; and Hezbollah would not disappear if the LAF were able to protect Lebanon against Israel as Hezbollah’s mandate exceeds the one provision.
Schenker followed up later that year with an article stressing the unmet expectations of the LAF (regarding internal safety and disposing of Hezbollah’s arsenal as per UNSC resolution 1701) as well as insinuating a close relationship between Hezbollah and the LAF. Schenker notes that strategic equipment in the hands of the LAF would probably be transferred to Hezbollah, despite arguing against this possibility not five months earlier.
Early this year, Schenker wrote another article that commented on the second-rate weaponry donated by the United States (again, despite writing about the modern US military aid in 2008). Schenker continued to note that the US government did not believe that the LAF had the required will or capacity to fulfill the more controversial missions (disarming Hezbollah and securing the Syrian border) and thus would continue to deny the modern sophisticated weaponry that the LAF needed. Andrew Exum agreed on the Lebanese blog Qifa Nabki, stating that the LAF wanted a modern army capable of fighting nation-states and the US wanted a LAF strong enough to fight terrorists at home. This difference in goals, argued Exum, was the reason that US military aid met so much disappointment in Lebanon. Qifa Nabki (QN) added that the LAF probably understood that even sophisticated technology would leave the LAF vastly inferior to the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), but that an army with sophisticated toys gives the image of power and national unity.
A few days later, and again posted on Qifa Nabki, Emile Hokayem expanded on the importance of image. Hokayem points out that after 2008 few in Lebanon had true confidence in the LAF due to its apparent faults in leadership and vision and a lack of official doctrine. For Hokayem, there are two options: Lebanon can demand strategically important and technologically sophisticated weapons in aid as long as the LAF acknowledges that such items were for show or the LAF can take the more mundane aid from the US and work on reforming the defunct foundation of the army. To use Hokayem’s words:
It may be true that the QME (Qualitative Military Edge, the Pentagon’s fancy term for saying that it will not provide weaponry to Arab allies that would give them an edge over Israel) is a problem, but right now the LAF is a broken car, with a shaky steering wheel, windows that don’t go up or down, no reliable brakes, no possibility of speeding or slowing down at will, no ability to safely negotiate steep curves, only a functioning AC and nice leather seats in which an officer can sit and parade around in, and the QME is that big hole a hundred kilometers away.
Noe reentered the conversation recently, making three points about US military aid. First, although it is commonly cited that the US has provided around $500 million dollars to Lebanon in 2008, only around $60 million had been delivered before the elections. The remainder was to be dependent on the outcome of the elections. Secondly, Noe clarifies the goals of US military aid. Schenker had said that the US understood that the LAF did not have the will or capacity for controversial mission – specifically disarming Hezbollah, but Noe reminds that a clear goal of the Bush Administration was to provide enough aid to counter the Shi’i group:
In fact, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told the Chicago Tribune in March 2006, after confirming an ongoing review: “We’re looking for stability. . . . An unstable Lebanon is a danger to itself, to its immediate neighbors and the region. This is part of our overall strategy.” He then asked, “The larger question is: Who is their enemy? Are they looking at Israel? Al-Qaeda? Syria? . . . In our minds, this is the army that sooner or later will have to stand up to the armed branch of Hezbollah.” Shortly thereafter, amid ongoing hostilities during the July War (which, as we now know, we vigorously encouraged by the Bush administration as a means of destroying Hezbollah), one State Department spokesperson made the quid pro quo clear, on the record: if the LAF hoped for equipment, even spare parts, it would have to first focus on “using its military to keep Hizbullah in check,” he said. The point was underscored by U.S. officials later interviewed by International Crisis Group who “implied” that “the LAF must be trained and equipped to meet Hizbollah’s, not Israel’s, challenge.” Ironically, as Schenker also no doubt knows, the title for the original US assistance to the LAF in 2006-2007 was actually called “Restricting Hezbollah’s Operational Space.”
Finally, Noe asserts that the LAF could be transformed into a credible deterrent to Israel, albeit at a high cost. More, and more technologically superior, military aid, argues Noe, would put enormous pressure on Hezbollah to disarm and would be followed by democratic reforms ‘of the power structure’ and the resolution of the Sheeba Farms issue. Noe does not bring up the likely QME issues that would be raised by Israel.
BREAKING DOWN THE DEBATE
This debate, which has been raging for about two years, is asking two fundamental questions: Should the US be supplying more and better military aid to Lebanon and what is the goal of US military aid? Secondary questions include: would Hezbollah be pressured to lay down arms if the LAF could confidently defend Lebanon against Israel, what is the current state of the LAF and how does any change in military aid affect Israel’s QME?
To start with the secondary questions, if the LAF were strong enough to be an effective deterrent against Israel, Hezbollah would see more pressure to disarm, but would not lose its hold on much of the Shi’a population in Lebanon. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the organization would lay down its arms. Syria and Iran do not want to see a pacifist Hezbollah as it benefits both countries to have Hezbollah as the main military force in Lebanon. Furthermore, as Schenker has pointed out, Hezbollah has linked its arms to more than simply the defense against Israel. Nasrallah has also linked Hezbollah to corruption, a Palestinian state and an agreement over Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is clear that Hezbollah does not intend to willingly lay down its arms. With a more powerful military, the LAF could move to force the disarmament of Hezbollah, but considering the social pull and importance of Hezbollah in most of Lebanon, this should not be considered a short term goal.
Secondly, the LAF desperately needs reorganization. As Hokayem mentioned in his contribution, the LAF “is an overstretched force, [with] poor managerial and strategic skills at the top, inadequate equipment and training and perennial concerns about force cohesion.” In order to truly be an effective force and to confidently provide defense against Israel, the LAF would need a serious makeover. Currently, the LAF is no match for is IDF, organizationally and with regard to the technology it possesses. Perhaps the biggest downfall of the LAF is the lack of organization throughout, but it is easier to pin the inefficacy of the LAF on poor supplies that on a fundamental problem with the force.
Finally, the question of Israel’s QME is tricky in that the maintenance of the QME is actually written in US law; the US government is legally required to think about the maintenance of Israel’s QME before selling military equipment to other countries. However, given the level of superiority of the IDF over the LAF and the incredible amount of annual aid going to Israel ($2.7 billion this year) increased support to Lebanon would, although close the ever-expanding gap, keep the LAF far in the rear. Even a large increase in the military aid to Lebanon would leave Israel’s QME intact. It is with the QME that Washington faces a catch-22: if the US wants to create a LAF capable of forcing the disarmament of Hezbollah, it will need to equip the Lebanese with the appropriate goods to defend effectively against Israel. Such a transfer of military equipment (in addition to costing upwards of $1 billion) would violate the terms of the legally binding QME (read Policy Focus #80 from the Washington Institute for more information on the debate surrounding Israel’s QME).
The central questions in this debate are invariably linked. If the US had clear goals for the LAF, it would be easy to determine if military aid should be increased. Without a major defense review and reorganization of the LAF, arguments about military aid are only to disguise the true inefficiency of the LAF. If the US wants an LAF that can challenge the military hegemony held by Hezbollah, more advanced weaponry is not enough; the US would need to keep providing basic materials while pushing for the much needed review – something that is certainly not desired by Hezbollah and disallowed by the current American commitments to Israel. However, if the US desires a LAF that exudes confidence and acts as a unifying force for Lebanon, more advanced and sophisticated would be needed, even if it were never to be used.
If the goal of the US is to create a LAF that can effectively combat terrorism in Lebanon while simultaneously putting pressure on Hezbollah to disarm (and constantly keeping an eye on Israel’s QME), a complete review of the LAF is required as well as a complete review of US military aid to Lebanon. Currently, the LAF looks like a second-tier military organization receiving second-tier aid from the US while Hezbollah benefits by remaining the only force that could defend Lebanon against Israel.