U.S. Is Lebanese Army's Patron
By Dana Priest
More than a decade after the United States retreated from Lebanon in the midst of a civil war that killed thousands, including 241 U.S. Marines in a Beirut truck-bombing, the American military has become the Lebanese army's chief Western patron.
Other agencies of the U.S. government have taken steps toward rebuilding ties in Lebanon, but they remain tentative in a place Washington still regards as perilous for Americans. U.S. officials are required to travel in armed convoys and must enter the country on helicopters that land directly at the embassy to avoid travel through areas where Americans and other Westerners were kidnapped in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, a bilateral military relationship has been thriving. Since the civil war ended in 1990, the Pentagon has donated or sold at nominal prices the equipment comprising Lebanon's entire air force -- 16 Huey helicopters, with another 16 on order -- and 80 percent of its ground transportation, including 850 armored personnel carriers, 3,000 jeeps and trucks and 60 ambulances.
Some 270 Lebanese officers have come to the United States for training since 1996, according to the Defense Department. Most take courses in infantry, armor, communications, artillery, logistics and medical skills. A dozen U.S. military personnel travel to Lebanon each year to train soldiers there.
Most recently, American teams have helped brigade commanders set up a logistics system, taught 500 Lebanese soldiers how to maintain two-ton trucks and M-113 personnel carriers and suggested ways to improve the military health care system. Americans are teaching mechanics who once worked on Mirage jet fighters how to repair no-frills Huey helicopters.
The Lebanese army spends about $30 million a year on U.S. military equipment, purchasing helicopters, vehicles, spare parts, small weapons and ammunition, night vision goggles, grenade launchers, and communications equipment and training, said defense officials. Lebanese troops are outfitted in U.S.-made camouflage fatigues.
"The Lebanese look like a little American division in their equipment and uniforms," said one American officer who has worked there.
Much of the equipment is so-called "excess defense articles" that the Lebanese buy for 10 percent of their true value. Since 1993, the Pentagon also has given Lebanon $9.3 million in equipment, including 60 ambulances and 32 bridge boats. Americans are planning a mine-clearing program in south Lebanon as well.
The military-to-military contacts "are a long way ahead of the rest of the relationship," said Lt. Col. Salim Raad, defense attache at the Lebanese Embassy in Washington. "It has been always constant. It didn't have the hiccups."
The United States has long seen Lebanon as a pivotal country in the Middle East peace process. Its feuding neighbors, Israel and Syria, have used it as a battlefield upon which to pressure each other for security and territorial concessions.
Syria stations 40,000 troops in Lebanon as a guarantee against an Israeli attack on its western flank and -- by supporting Hezbollah guerrillas fighting an Israeli occupation -- as a pressure point for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Israel, which invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 in an attempt to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization, occupies southern Lebanon with 2,200 troops in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The Clinton administration has encouraged business partnerships, but it has cautioned American executives about their safety and lifted a travel ban for Americans only last year. While thousands of Americans have visited since then, Washington ended a ban on purchasing airline tickets to Lebanon in the United States just three months ago.
The administration has earmarked $12 million in aid this year for infrastructure repairs and housing rehabilitation in Lebanon. But it has yet to establish the full range of government-to-government ties or authorize more than a minimal diplomatic presence.
Clinton dispatched Commerce Secretary William Daley to Lebanon recently to promote U.S. business opportunities. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala arrived in Beirut yesterday to survey its health care system. U.S. officials say these are goodwill gestures meant to show support while maintaining a distance until the security situation improves.
In the meantime, the Pentagon has argued that, at some point, the Lebanese Armed Forces will be required to provide security for the country, particularly southern Lebanon,and that it needs to be properly trained and equipped for the task.
"Over the long term, we want to see Lebanon established as a full, sovereign country capable of maintaining order within its own borders," said E.O. Joseph McMillan, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near East and South Asian affairs.
U.S. officials say they also want to draw the armed forces away from Syria's Soviet-style military doctrine toward a more Western-style, decentralized chain of command with a professional, apolitical noncommissioned officer corps, and to cement U.S. influence and access in the process.
The U.S. assistance, which is scrutinized by congressional foreign relations committees and approved by the State Department, is also meant to support the efforts of Emile Lahoud, who was commander of the armed forces until he was inaugurated as president last week after winning recent elections.
Lahoud, who attended the Naval War College in 1980, is credited with unifying a previously fratricidal force. In the past, separate Maronite, Druze, Shiite, Sunni, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic battalions were made up of soldiers from a particular region and protected provincial rather than national interests.
Lahoud introduced integrated units and ordered them to rotate around the country. He instituted compulsory service and sent young recruits to serve with multiethnic companies. The force grew from 20,000 to 65,000 troops under his command.
"Lahoud is credited with having done a lot to rebuild the army into a solid institution," Prime Minister-designate Selim Hoss said in a recent interview. "Now it's considered the best institution in the country. He's the one that has isolated the army from politics."
The Clinton administration believes the Lebanese army helped make a viable central government in Lebanon possible and that its success is crucial to shepherding the fragile unity through the massive reconstruction effort underway.
"What Lahoud is trying to do with the army, the Lebanese are trying to do with the nation," said retired Gen. George Jouwaln, former commander-in-chief of NATO and the U.S. European Command, who traveled to Lebanon this year to visit his grandfather's hometown. "We can influence this so when the peace comes, we can help them deal with it."
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