Hezbollah, Lebanon

The Inside Scoop on U.S. Military Aid to the LAF

I know you’re all probably bored stiff with the discussion about US military funding to the Lebanese Army, but I couldn’t pass this one up.

The following commentary was sent to me by a former official who has intimate firsthand knowledge of US-Lebanese military affairs. It is published here at QN with their permission.


I’ve been reading the discussion on your blog regarding US assistance to the LAF. As one of the only people from the Pentagon or State Department intimately involved in designing and operationalizing this effort who has left government, I would like to share some thoughts on this program.

I was one of the point people for countless briefings on this effort both within the Executive branch and before Congress. The initial security assistance package delivered after the war (primarily spare parts and ammunition) was for strengthening Lebanese sovereignty, as were all other elements of our effort to build the LAF. This was the key argument made for the assistance; not diminishing Hizballah’s operating space.

One criticism made in the discussion is that the U.S. should be building the LAF to fight the IDF. I’m perplexed as to why the U.S. should do so. Lebanon’s challenge, which it has faced from time immemorial, is the destabilizing impact of various domestic groups (many, if not all, fostered by external actors). Only when the Lebanese government can exert its sovereignty throughout Lebanese territory will Lebanon have a chance at achieving stability. Doing so will diminish the ability of outside parties to meddle in Lebanese affairs. This is what the aid program is intended to accomplish.

Building the LAF (or any partner state military, for that matter) does not mean nor should it ever mean “total, unrestricted support,” as some have asserted. This argument illustrates a shortsighted understanding of how to build a military. The LAF’s two biggest needs when the U.S. began the program to rapidly train and equip it were. . .mobility and ammunition. Yes, not very enticing, but these requirements were painfully clear to anyone who examined the LAF. In 2005, LAF troops did not have the ability to move deftly around the country. They averaged 3-5 bullets per soldier, per year (including training). In building the LAF, the U.S. has focused on addressing its urgent needs first. For this, the U.S. should be applauded. Furthermore, despite a painfully slow and outdated security assistance program, substantial aid has been delivered to Lebanon since 2006, yet another example of how high this effort has been on Washington’s priority list. One critical aspect of the U.S. program to rapidly build the LAF is its strategic-level focus. The establishment of the Joint Military Committee (JMC), a senior-level annual defense dialogue that the Pentagon leadership holds only with close allies, is one important example. This forum helps ensure both parties are on the same page, and it serves as an important avenue in facilitating discussion on issues like defense strategy.

A modernized, strengthened LAF would involve quite a few of the elements that Emile raises (which are, one should note, found in many of today’s militaries, not simply in Hizballah). However, the notion that Hizballah will support such an effort seems rather farcical. At the end of the day, a stronger, more willing LAF is inevitably a competitor to Hizballah, not a compatriot.

The notion that the U.S. and Lebanon have vastly differing visions of how to best rapidly build the LAF is actually rather inaccurate. Since this effort began, a sustained dialogue at various levels has enabled the parties to come to a similar understanding of the LAF’s needs, and how the U.S. would fulfill them. It is rare that one hears requests for F-16s or the like from LAF members. In fact, the Lebanese government’s decision to accept MiGs from Russia was rued throughout the LAF and by many political figures as well; at all levels, they understood that these planes were not helpful in fulfilling the LAF’s mandate.

Finally, I do believe this talk of LAF complaints is a bit overplayed. All militaries want security assistance in-country yesterday. A bit of frustration is inevitable, as we see in other cases (e.g., Iraq; Afghanistan; Pakistan). That said, the U.S. could have launched its effort to build the LAF earlier than it did; the first tranche of tangible assistance didn’t come through until the second half of 2006. Our system is what it is; the Founding Fathers designed it to impede, rather than to foster, action. So be it. Turn to the Iranians if one would prefer greater speed.

I should add that those interested in examining the current effort would do well to study the 1982-1984 period. That represented the first time the U.S. tried to rapidly build the LAF (under a program known as the Lebanese Army Modernization Program—LAMP), and it suffered from a host of problems. The U.S. has learned much since the LAMP transpired, including the significance of context, continuous reassessment, and appropriate distribution of materiel.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.
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12 thoughts on “The Inside Scoop on U.S. Military Aid to the LAF

  1. Quite candid!

    There is a single element of contradiction in this account/perspective (“not diminishing HA’s operating space” versus enabling the LAF as its “competitor”), but by and large it confirms quite well my simplified points regarding the intent and parameters of US aid.

    The part about F-16s is amusing. Does anybody think for a second that Lebanon (or any nation on earth) would reject the military aid giveaways Israel receives from the US, which enable its IASF? The only reason the MiG-29 offer met with such skepticism was the fact that this Russian “giveaway” didn’t also provide the necessary supplemental aid to make such a thing truly viable And even if such were to be provided, this model of Russian fighter has little chance against the likes flown by the IASF, for which there is both overwhelming qualitative as well as quantitative superiority. The Lebanese would do much better with a relatively up-to-date SAM network (much easier and economical to train for, field and operate).

    And the part about “turn to the Iranians if one would prefer greater speed’ is totally disingenuous. UN Resolution 1747, ostensibly based on nuclear issues, nevertheless conveniently placed a total embargo on Iran’s weapons exports. Coming on the heels of Lebanon’s successful defense in 2006, the object of this resolution attachment could not be made more clear.

    (Thanks for posting, Qifa.)

    Posted by Mark Pyruz | January 18, 2010, 1:31 pm
  2. “Turn to the Iranians if one would prefer greater speed.”

    Or perhaps not. It is not the policy of the US to suggest Iran as an acceptable alternative for military assistance.

    Sarcasm can be an effective, thought provoking device. It can also fall flat when used as a jab, evidence of one’s own frustration with the intended audience. Too bad this excellent piece is marred by this insult (in bold, no less) to the less knowledgeable but certainly engaged participants in this debate.

    (Editor’s note: The bold-face type was my addition, not the author’s.)

    Posted by blackpoint | January 18, 2010, 2:02 pm
  3. I never get this statement “strengthening Lebanese sovereignty”. What does it mean? Does it have something to do with domestic security? Then that should be the domain of internal security forces. Does it mean defense against external threats? Then that’s what Hizballah is doing right now. And the LAF is supposed to gain the ability to do it itself, since that’s its natural purpose.
    In other words, strengthening the LAF means allowing it to assume its natural role, which Hizballah is playing right now. So by definition, this entails restricting Hizballah’s operating space. I don’t see any other way of looking at this.

    Posted by Mehdi | January 18, 2010, 2:14 pm
  4. I do not see any contradictions in the statement:

    “The initial security assistance package delivered after the war (primarily spare parts and ammunition) was for strengthening Lebanese sovereignty, as were all other elements of our effort to build the LAF. This was the key argument made for the assistance; not diminishing Hizballah’s operating space.”

    Every plan in any field is designed to achieve a particular objective and usually in doing so there will be a number of other areas that will be impacted by the execution of the original plan. Strengthening the Lebanese Army and making it more efficient is a worthy goal in itself irrespective of whether achieving such a goal will help some and hurt others.

    I am sure that most of us will agree that increasing the volume of trade is an effective tool in attaining economic growth but trade will not benefit eveyone in society. There will be winners and there will be losers but to suggest that trade is promoted in order to hurt a group or a profession is preposterous.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 18, 2010, 3:39 pm
  5. QN,

    I was hoping that you would not use official yet un-attributable sources. That said the style of writing and terminologies used indicate that the author is indeed affiliated in a way with ‘a’ military institution, most probably Western. This last observation talks directly at the sentiments of the author and/or who he/she represent regarding US official priorities in the ME region (as if one needed proof!).

    I believe contributors before me alluded to the discrepancy/contradiction between the two statements re Hizbulla’s not-so-central-then-central position in US’s efforts to ‘rehabilitate’ the Lebanese armed forces.

    I have no issue with the data and details in the piece I just read. I actually believe most it to be a true reflection of the thinking of Washington. My beef really is the transparent way in which the author tries to package the US’s endeavours as a ‘gift to Lebanon’. Dare I say that it is not, a gift that is; a Trojan Horse perhaps!

    The US is not a charity, registered or otherwise. Furthermore Washington similar to any self-respecting government has a foreign policy and a mapped out strategy. For nearly half a decade, US’s ME policy has been to support Israel in every which way possible. Israel is the US’s strategic ally. On the other side there is Lebanon, a sworn enemy of Israel, at least officially as a state of war exists between the two states. When the chips are down; well, there are no prizes for guessing where Washington would stand. In the light of the above, one would be hard-pushed to find an observer who would see US’s so-called assistance to LAF as driven by a genuine desire to provide Lebanese with a viable defence against the actual saboteur of Lebanon’s security i.e. Israel with its invasions, wars of expansion and continuous violation of Lebanese sovereignty.

    The above assertion leads me smoothly to the answer to a question posed by the author: One criticism made in the discussion is that the U.S. should be building the LAF to fight the IDF. I’m perplexed as to why the U.S. should do so..? Because Israel poses REAL threat to the security of Lebanon and perhaps the region at large; that is why a well-meaning US administration ought to provide the LAF with weapons that will be ‘effective’ in facing this REAL threat.

    One more sentence struck me as worthy of referring to: At the end of the day, a stronger, more willing LAF is inevitably a competitor to Hizballah, not a compatriot.

    I believe that this statement, more than all the words uttered in the piece, put the cat amongst the pigeons as to Washington’s intentions.

    Is the author actually advocating a return to civil war in Lebanon? This is not a rhetorical question rather a genuine attempt at understanding.

    If not, then I would like to put the author’s mind at ease and update him/her on the state of relations between the Lebanese army and the resistance..it has never been better, with regular co-ordination and a common military ideology that stems out of both sides agreeing about the roots of threat to the Lebanese national and cultural identity, even its existence. This is the worst kept secret,


    Posted by Questionmarks | January 18, 2010, 4:29 pm
  6. I’m glad I’m subscribed to this blog – it is rare to see a raw account by someone in the beaurocratic trenches – thanks.

    Posted by Yonatan | January 18, 2010, 6:01 pm
  7. I’m having trouble parsing “destabilizing impact of various domestic groups “. What groups is he referring to?

    The Palestinians? Would he label them as ‘domestic’? This is the real critique of U.S. military aid: That its aim is to suppress the restless natives rather than provide for Lebanon’s real defence needs.

    Hezballah? That would jibe with “diminish the ability of outside parties to meddle in Lebanese affairs”. I’m guessing he’s not talking about U.S. support of the Future movement.

    I really am asking. In my first read through I just assumed he meant all the warlords / political parties currently in government. In which case the lack of state command and control is due to a fractured political system, not lack of guns.

    Posted by RedLeb | January 18, 2010, 7:19 pm
  8. there is very little to disagree with his main point. Strengthening the LAF means strengthening national institutions and diminishing sectarian ones. and whatever one’s views on HA might be, I hope everyone would agree that any action diminishing sectarianism is a positive thing.

    that said he completely fails to tackle the biggest obstacle of achieving such goal; the political structure of lebanese government which in its current form will never allow for such major change

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | January 18, 2010, 9:17 pm
  9. “It is rare that one hears requests for F-16s or the like from LAF members.”

    Well. I am certain that the author of this commentary, like a vast majority of the American employees at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, speaks both standard Arabic and Lebanese dialect fluently, and goes out of his way to converse with Lebanese (in this case, LAF members) who do not speak English.

    Posted by Alfred | January 19, 2010, 8:42 am
  10. Redleb,

    In re: domestic groups.

    Perhaps you missed or don’t understand that: “Hezbollah’s political participation is the utter bastardization and inexorable destruction of democracy.”

    Who knew …? … 😉

    See: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/oct/23/the-pretense-of-reform/

    Posted by david | January 19, 2010, 6:56 pm
  11. Question Marks,

    In re: cats, pigeons.

    I think the biggest tell was the Bush administration’s use of the words “root causes” during the 2006 war.

    It has always been the position of the US government to support Lebanese sovereignty (this phrase, of course, means everything and nothing). For a couple of decades, the USG was officially opposed to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, (as well as the Israeli presence, and the presence of armed Palestinian and Lebanese groups). However, it asserted at the same time that these issues were inevitably tied up with the Arab-Israeli conflict (root causes).

    This policy ambiguity (or ambivalence), however, came under increasing political strain with the redeployment of the IDF in May 2000. That redeployment opened up political space for Lebanese, American and Israeli voices to question the strategic and political legitimacy of Lebanon’s Pax Syriana, as well as Lebanon’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict (ie HA is not a product of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but a “root cause”.) Of course, such a position found fertile soil in the US GWOT (terrorists exist to terrorize), as well as the regional realities of the intensification of the Israeli-Iranian cold war.

    I think the basic American-Israeli strategic idea, to the extent that one exists in coherent form, is to apply a kind of creeping, evolutionary pressure on Hizbullah in the name of Lebanese sovereignty and Israeli security.

    How does that shake out? I don’t know. I would think it depends on how hard different parties push, and how hard other parties push back.

    Posted by david | January 19, 2010, 8:31 pm
  12. Yep I 100% agree with David on that one.
    Your comment is biased. You didn’t mention that HA attacks Lebanese civilians. Does may 2008 ring a bell? And what about the Syrian army? Why doesn’t HA defend Lebanese soil from Syrian troops crossing the border? Hezbollah isn’t defending lebanon. Hezbollah is working for it’s own sectarian agenda, which has the Iranian stamp of approval on it.
    The palestinian groups aren’t “restless natives”. Before they came, there wasn’t any conflict in Lebanon. It was far from that, it was the golden age of the 60s. Btw interesting choice of a pinko commie name. Before you ask, I’m Lebanese.

    Posted by The voices | April 5, 2012, 11:19 am

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