This week’s deadly clash along the Israel-Lebanon border has drawn attention to the issue of United States military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and how that aid is used.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to approve $100 million for the LAF in its budget request for 2011, the same amount as approved in 2010.
Tuesday’s border skirmish saw LAF troops open fire across the international border, killing a senior Israeli officer. Two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist were killed during an ensuing gunbattle.
The LAF confirms having “confronted the enemy’s forces with weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.”
Since a month-long war between Israel and the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah in 2006 the U.S. has provided weaponry and equipment to the LAF including rifles, small arms, night vision goggles, body armor and scopes.
Most recently, a shipment in April included “1,000 M16A4 rifles, 10 missile launchers, 1,583 grenade launchers, and 538 sets of day/night binoculars and night-vision devices,” the U.S. Embassy reported at the time.
A U.S. lawmaker reportedly wants an inquiry into the possibility that weapons used by Lebanese soldiers during the clash were provided by the U.S.
Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, told The Jerusalem Post that he and many other members of Congress would be concerned about continued military support for Lebanon if it was established that the action had been approved by Lebanese authorities. Attempts to reach Klein late Thursday were unsuccessful.
Last year, members of Congress sought to ensure that U.S. aid to the LAF does not benefit Hezbollah.
In a section on military aid to Lebanon, foreign operations legislation included a requirement that the Secretary of State “report on the procedures in place to ensure that no funds are provided to any individuals or organizations that have any known links to terrorist organizations including Hezbollah, and mechanisms to monitor the use of the funds.”
“˜Counterweight to Hezbollah, Syria’
The aim of funding, equipping and training the LAF, according to the administration, is to help the government to extend its control throughout Lebanon’s territory and to counter terrorism and extremism.
During his Senate confirmation process late last month, the incoming head of U.S. Central Command Gen. James Mattis in a written statement spelled out the benefits of U.S. assistance to the LAF in terms of providing “an even-handed counterweight to the influences of Syria and Hezbollah.”
Visiting Beirut last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow said U.S. funding would “help the LAF maintain security, protect Lebanon’s borders against smuggling, and prevent militias and other non-state actors from using violence to undermine the [Lebanese government’s] authority.”
But when it comes to “militias and other non-state actors” the LAF differentiates between violent Islamist groups – like the Palestinian factions Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham – and Hezbollah.
In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism publication, released Thursday, the State Department reported on the LAF’s counter terror activities during 2009, but relating only to groups like Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham, not to Hezbollah.
While the U.S. has designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization and insists on its disarmament in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions, the LAF – like the Lebanese government itself – has a ambiguous view on the organization, known widely in Lebanon as “the Resistance.”
(Hezbollah and its allies control one-third of the seats in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet and the government recently defended Hezbollah in the Security Council, disputing Israel’s assertions that it is a terrorist organization.)
The LAF’s official doctrine, in a section entitled “Supporting the Lebanese Resistance,” says that Hezbollah has a legal right to operate until the end of the Israeli occupation.
“This Resistance, which has been supported by the government, the army, and the civilians, has led to the defeat of the enemy on Lebanon’s land,” the doctrine says.
“But the enemy is still to be located in Shebaa Farms, in places of great strategic and economic significance. Therefore, the Lebanese have the right to fight the enemy until it withdraws.”
(Although Israel withdrew from a southern Lebanon buffer zone in 2000, after which the U.N. confirmed the frontier known as the Blue Line, Lebanon continues to claim a sliver of land known as the Shebaa Farms. Historically it was controlled by Syria, not Lebanon, and was captured along with the rest of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War.)
'Thirty percent of LAF officers are Shi’ites'
Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said in a radio interview Thursday that Israel was concerned about the LAF and its relationship to Hezbollah.
“There is a danger of the “˜Hezbollization’ of the Lebanese army,” he was quoted as saying. “If Hezbollah manages to take control of the army, we will have to treat [the LAF] in a completely different manner.”
In a comprehensive 2009 report on the LAF, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) fellow Aram Nerguizian noted that Shi’ites account for almost 30 percent of the LAF officers corps, “making it very difficult for the military to move against Hezbollah.”
“This is further compounded by LAF senior personnel holding contradictory views of the Shi’a group and its role in Lebanon and the region,” he wrote.
“Any attempt to strengthen the LAF so that it can fight Hezbollah will fail.”
Nerguizian argued that the U.S. should help the LAF in order “to lay the foundation for Hezbollah disarmament in the mid-to-long term rather than all-out confrontation in the short term.”
Whether LAF officers on the scene or higher up the chain of command gave the order to fire on the Israelis on Tuesday remains unclear. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) says its investigations are continuing.
Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station quoted an LAF source as saying the order had “come directly from the Lebanese Army command.” Other media quoted a senior LAF officer, Maj. Gen. Abdulrahman Chehaitly as saying during a UNIFIL-brokered meeting with Israeli officers that the orders came from Army command.
Despite Israel’s assertions to the contrary – backed up by UNIFIL – Lebanon maintains that the Israelis had crossed into Lebanese territory.
During a speech to retired officers Thursday LAF Commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji gave no indication that he was troubled by the actions taken by troops at the scene.
“Your colleagues deployed in the south have once again affirmed their loyalty to the oath and commitment to duty through their heroic confrontation with the Israeli enemy,” he said.
Kahwaji is not averse to statements that may unsettle decision makers in Washington.
Last Saturday he said in a speech to troops that Israel was the country’s primary enemy.
“The first enemy is still occupying parts of our land, pursues violations and threats against Lebanon and plants its agents in the country because it is envious of our national pride,” he said.
Those comments came less than a week after Kahwaji met with Vershbow and another visiting U.S. assistant secretary of defense, Michael Vickers.
“The unprovoked attack by the LAF raises serious concerns about the Lebanese government’s orientation and the growing influence of Hezbollah,” American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) said in a memo this week.
Noting reports in which LAF officers have openly admitted coordinating with Hezbollah in patrols in southern Lebanon, AIPAC said the administration should press the Lebanese government to take meaningful steps to disarm Hezbollah, in line with U.N. resolutions.
“If the army continues to cooperate with Hezbollah, Washington must reevaluate its relationship with the Beirut government and the Lebanese Armed Forces—the recipient of significant American military aid,” it said.