U.S. Forces Help Lebanese Military Assert Control
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2008 The U.S. military is helping the Lebanese military establish itself as the sole arm of the democratically elected Lebanese government, a senior Pentagon official said in a recent interview.
“The Lebanese armed forces has a unique role,” Chris Straub, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near East and South Asian affairs, said. “It’s one of the strongest national institutions in Lebanon. All Lebanese look up to it as a symbol of their state.”
That is an important fact, given the recent history of the country. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. Beirut – once considered the Paris of the East – was in ruins, and the country seemed hopelessly divided between Muslim and Christian sects. Roughly 60 percent of the population is Muslim, and 40 percent is Christian, but the country has 18 different officially recognized sects.
The United States and Lebanon signed a military cooperation agreement in October, establishing the U.S.-Lebanese Joint Military Commission to provide an official framework for the bilateral U.S.-Lebanese military relationship.
The U.S. and Lebanese militaries have worked together since 2006. The joint commission will provide a yearly opportunity for both sides to examine military cooperation and the goals for the coming year, Straub said, and much needs to be done.
“The Lebanese military was weakened not only by the civil war, but by the Syrian occupation,” Straub said. Twice since Syrian troops left Lebanon in 2005, he added, U.S. Central Command officials have surveyed the Lebanese military and presented findings and recommendations.
“The most important one was that the Lebanese military needed a lot of help in the military basics, which are not always the most glamorous,” Straub, a retired Army officer, said. “They needed trucks, Humvees, parts and ammunition more than they needed high-end, expensive weaponry.”
They also need training, he added. The 72,000-member Lebanese military needs basic help with training in marksmanship, urban combat, logistics and maintenance, and staff functions. Lebanese officers are attending several U.S. 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.
In 2006, the United States renewed its security relationship with Lebanon, and since then has funneled more than $400 million in foreign military sales money.
“It is national policy that Lebanon be sovereign, that Lebanon be independent,” Straub said. “Our part of that is to help build up the Lebanese armed forces so the Lebanese government can be sovereign in all its territory.”
In the past, each sect and group in Lebanon has had a militia. The largest and best-equipped militia belongs to Hezbollah, which rules in the Shiia areas of southern Lebanon bordering Israel. The CIA World Factbook says the Lebanese army and police have control of about two-thirds of the country. Hezbollah – which the United States says is a terrorist organization – and its allies control the rest.
The U.S. goal is for [the army and police] working for the democratically elected Lebanese government to exercise power throughout the country, Straub said. “That’s not going to happen tomorrow, or perhaps next year,” he said. “But that is our goal.”
The United States has sent 285 Humvees to Lebanon, and another 312 will arrive by March. The United States has sent 200 trucks to the Lebanese and 41 M-198 155 mm artillery pieces. The Lebanese army also will get night-vision equipment and some tactical unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Behind it is all basics – 12 million rounds of ammo, spare helicopter parts, shoulder-fired rockets,” Straub said. “We want them to play their role in controlling Lebanese territory. We also want them to deter the terrorist threat.”
The United States is committed to getting Lebanon more modern tanks, and the U.S. military is working on delivering M-60A3 tanks. “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,” Straub said.
Lebanese take care of their equipment, he noted, “because it has been hard to come by for them.” He also said the Lebanese record on safeguarding American equipment “is impeccable.”
None of this is done in a vacuum, Straub said.
“We don’t have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel’s qualitative military edge,” he said. “That’s a U.S. commitment that we take very seriously.” For example, the Lebanese army M-60 tanks are no match for Israel’s Mekava 4 main battle tanks.
“We think we are helping make the region more peaceful – at least more possibility for peace in the region – by giving the Lebanese government the ability to control the events in its territory – whether it be terrorism or militias,” Straub said. “Either way, we think this is good for everybody’s security in the region, or we wouldn’t be doing it.”
The way forward will take time, Straub said. In fighting against terror groups holed up in a refugee camp, for example, the Lebanese military rigged a Huey helicopter to drop bombs.
“It’s important to do this at the level the Lebanese military can absorb,” Straub said. “The next step is more capability for the air, thinking in terms of not only being able to transport things via air, but have a precise close-air support [capability].”
U.S. military cooperation with the Lebanese also sends a political message, Straub said. “The United States cares about Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty,” he said. “The people know that and appreciate it.”