Monday, September 03, 2007

Progress In Lebanon

Yesterday, the Lebanese Army took control of a refugee camp in northern Lebanon that had become a haven for Fatah al Islam, a radical Sunni group loosely affiliated with al Qaeda. The stand-off, which began in May, forced most of the camp's 30,000 residents to flee and cost the lives of 157 Lebanese soldiers and at least 42 civilians. Approximately 120 militants were killed as well.

The pacification of the camp is important in and of itself, as eliminating a locus of radical insurgents is always a move in the right direction. But the action by the Lebanese Army could serve as a stepping stone for greater political progress in Lebanon as well. As I wrote about last summer during the Israeli-Hezbollah war, the Lebanese Army and government were faced with a monumental challenge in trying to enforce the cease-fire and restrain Hezbollah. It was the inability of the Lebanese government to maintain a monopoly of violence in the first place that permitted Hezbollah to grow so strong and to initiate the war with Israel that proved so damaging to Lebanon.

Now, as a result of the operation against Fatah al Islam, the Lebanese Army is developing a sense of confidence and capability that it has not had in the past. As the New York Times notes:

“The army is emerging as the guardian of the state of Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “Politicians have failed, therefore the army is the only institution capable of shoring the country toward peace.”
Such a development is vital for Lebanon. The political process, important as it may be, cannot function when rival groups both possess significant military capabilities. Only if the Army is trusted and seen as the guarantor of peace and order can the political process develop as well.

But that won't be enough, in and of itself. So long as Hezbollah is quiet, it's easy to ignore it. But, if and when Hezbollah becomes active again, the Army must be willing and able to challenge the militia. Hezbollah cannot be allowed to drag Lebanon into another devastating war with Israel; nor can Hezbollah be allowed to undermine the government and civil society by threatening the political process.

Hopefully, the victory in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp will produce a confident and capable Lebanese Army; one that is up to the task of defending the people of Lebanon.

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