Lebanon's Army awaits a signal to start a second rebuilding
In his west Beirut apartment, a Lebanese Army colonel sat frustrated and bored, occasionally glancing nervously out a window at the rippling Mediterranean.Skip to next paragraph
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He has been barely active for two months, ever since the Army split along religious lines because of a government order for the Christian-led Army to attack Muslim-dominated west Beirut.
''There is still hope for this country,'' he said somewhat forlornly. ''One hope. It is the Army. We may have split into two armies, but we still have not fought each other, and we can still be put back together again.
''It is different from (the civil war of) 1975-76 when so many left to join the militias. This time we stayed in ranks and did not turn over equipment. I want to be one army again, and so does every soldier I know. But there is not much time left.''
The status of the Lebanese Army may be the one thing both Christians and Muslims in this divided country agree on. All sides claim the reunification of the armed forces would mark the real success of the troubled reconciliation effort.
There are, in effect, two armies in Lebanon: one loyal to the state and, like the government, Christian-dominated; and a second, now cooperating with Druze and Muslim militias that represent the majority of the population. One of the bizarre twists to the division between east and west Beirut is that both sides rely on the Army for security and basic functions of law and order.
Another is that the government still pays officers and troops who, in any other army in the world, would be considered to have gone AWOL. And there continue to be contacts between the two sides, according to Army sources and United States military advisers who have been training the resurrected Army for the past 16 months.
That the ''second'' army has gained quasi-legitimate status was reflected by the evaluation of the US marines who handed over their positions at Beirut airport to the Muslim 3rd and 6th Army brigades.
''One good thing about the rebellion was that it was not aimed at the Army per se, but against the government and its use of the Army,'' a key Western military source said. ''And it could go back together rather quickly in the right political environment.''
Indeed, the rebuilding of the Lebanese Army, begun in late 1982 by a team of US Special Forces and Rangers, may be the only comparative success story of the US presence here. Lebanese officials in both armies concede that the ''Lebanese Army modernization program'' did manage to hammer a new sense of discipline and loyalty into the armed forces, in a country where religious allegiance has been stronger than national identity.
Since the breakdown on Feb. 6 when Muslim militias took over west Beirut, Washington officials have blamed the US trainers for overoptimistic evaluations of the Army's potential. Yet diplomats and sources close to the trainers claim that repeated advisories warned of the dangers of injecting politics into a still fragile situation that might force conscripts and officers to take a stand.
Ten days before the turning point, a US military analyst correctly predicted that the Army could not be used on a major offensive until a national-unity government was installed. Such a government would be needed, he said, to prevent the two major Muslim sects and the Druzes from charging that the Army worked only in the interest of minority Christians who still had a tight grip on the government.