The scale of the restoration of central Beirut - that part of the city that once straddled the Green Line and across which the combatants of a multitude of factions, warlords, militias, zealots, mercenaries and armies battled each other for sixteen years - is prodigious. At the heart of it, the arabesque Ottoman fountains and the Place des Martyrs with its shell-splintered figurines that had become a symbol of the struggle are gone forever. In 1998 there were parts of central Beirut that looked like a Hiroshima flashback. The ground had been almost leveled in places. Here and there a ruin poked skywards through the dust. Elsewhere, there were refugees displaced by the war still living in shattered buildings. That too will change as more of the city is demolished. The fervor of reconstruction is unparalleled anywhere in the world during the past half century.
It is the same with the Lebanese Armed Forces, the national army that was sidelined for the duration of the war. Only occasionally was it forced into some crucial conflict of interest, and then grudgingly, because there were Christians and Muslims in its ranks throughout the troubles. Finally, once the army had been charged with creating order from chaos by the new Council of Ministers after the Taif accords of November 1989, few believed it possible because the country had been almost irrevocably fragmented by its 99 identifiable militias.
One needs to look at recent history to understand the scale of what has been achieved in making the Lebanese Armed Forces viable once more. This, too, is no easy task since there are many conflicting interpretations of events. Following the assassination of Christian Phalangist militia leader Bashir Gemayel only weeks after his election to the presidency in 1982, the nation faced the prospect of an intra-ethnic implosion. By then, about 100,000 people had been killed in a succession of religious and factional conflicts that had all the trappings of a medieval bloodletting. As Dominque Darquennes, a French colleague observed, it was a modern-day glimpse into the Inferno, possibly as Dante had envisioned it. And anyway, by then Lebanon had been written off. Violence had effectively become institutionalized.
For all his vices - and there were many - said New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman,1 Bashir Gemayel was both brilliant and charismatic. He charmed his own people and seduced the Israelis into invading the country in 1982. As was to be expected, there were even some Sunni Muslim factions that offered him support, if only to be rid of the pesky Palestinians. There are still more than 350,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon, most of them scattered about in a dozen squalid, overcrowded camps that are closely monitored by the army.
But, as Friedman reports, it was Syrian President Hafiz Asad who had Gemayel killed. Habin Tanous Shartouni, a Syrian intelligence agent, planted a bomb in the apartment above his office. He detonated it while Bashir was in council. It was not the first time that Syria had liquidated a Lebanese leader. Only five years before, Asad had Druze tribal chief Kemal Jumblat (Walid's father) killed after he had dared to cross him in pub li c.2
Amin Gemayel, who took over as president from Bashir, sported all of his brother's weaknesses and none of his strengths. It was he who asked the Americans in 1982 to assume primary responsibility to train and equip the Lebanese army. It was a disaster. U.S. military advisers quickly moved into the offices of the Lebanese Ministry of Defense in Yarze, which overlooks much of Beirut. But the process ended when Amin Gemayel used the national army to attack Druze and Shiite forces. A lot of innocent people were killed before the Americans realized they had been duped. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government had splintered again. The conflict which followed was to last another seven years.
Also, it was payback time. First the U.S. embassy was attacked by a suicide bomber, which left 63 dead (including all the CIA regional heads in the Middle East). On October 23, 1983, within two minutes of each other, the 10-story barracks housing the French paratroop contingent in Beirut and the U.S. Marine compound near the airport were blown up. Suddenly there was a new player on the block: Hezbollah.
Amin Gemayel's term finally ended in 1988. His last mistake was to appoint General Michel Aoun, a Christian and an often-irrational phrenetic, to lead a caretaker government until new elections could be held. Aoun, a bitter, longtime enemy of Syria, divided the government, the army and, ultimately, the country. With a Maronite leader in East Beirut a fair accompli, the Sunni prime minister, Selim al-Hoss, established his Muslim opposition government in West Beirut. Overnight anarchy became the norm.
It lasted until Taif. But even then there were ructions. Rene Mouawad, a Christian who was elected president following Taif, survived for 17 days before being assassinated. Mouawad had made the mistake of ordering Aoun out of the presidential palace and pushing the Syrian tanks in. That episode was one of the consequences of Operation Desert Storm. The Syrians had been given the green light by Washington in exchange for Asad's cooperation in joining the coalition forces against Iraq.
The battles that swept across Lebanon with Aoun as titular head were some of the worst of the war, ending with his abrupt departure for Paris and exile in October 1990. He is still there, issuing pronouncements on Lebanon's future. As with most exiles, his projections about the region are often out of touch.
With the war over, there were surprising new developments. Much of this was due to the initiative of a professional soldier and graduate of a British naval academy and France's St. Cyr, General Emile Lahoud, who, while in command of the Lebanese Armed Forces, does not like: being reminded of his Maronite antecedents.3
"In this job, I am first a Lebanese national and only then am I a Christian," he said when I questioned him about this dichotomy. His personal motto is encapsulated in the modestly framed maxim on one of the office walls in the complex. In Arabic it reads, "There is no going back. There will be no Lebanon if we do."
As General Lahoud explained it, his credo throughout the period of transition was simple. He reasoned the only way it was possible to create an effective balance of power in Lebanon between Muslims and Christians was to institute a policy of "no victor, no vanquished." A modest man who drives himself to work and eschews the glitz that normally goes with the job in so many Arab countries, he speaks good English (he is also fluent in French) and prefers to answer questions directly rather than through an intermediary.
Of all the senior officers in the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Emile Lahoud is the one man who, somehow, managed to keep clear of partisan politics. It helped that he was navy and that he never really played any direct role in the civil war. For a while, after General Aoun had been appointed commander, he worked under him as a deputy in the Ministry of National Defense reporting to the minister. It was only once the Taif accords had become a reality that Lahoud moved his general staff to Yarze.
"I worked closely with General Aoun. In fact, I was in the office right next door, so I was privy to just about everything that went on. Also, we had known each other for a very long time. I made the mistake that I thought that we both understood the issues and, more important, exactly what was at stake. Consequently, I was one of the first to become aware that he had his own ideas, his own agenda with regard to the settlement." His boss, he said, had questioned the legitimacy of Taif from the start.
"Aoun told me that he could not, would not, respect anything that was agreed to at Taif. He then ordered the mobilization of our forces so that the army would attack West Beirut. That was March 14, 1989. I tried to argue, but it was pointless. He simply wouldn't listen. In fact, he became quite angry because I did not go along with him. So I had no option but to resign."
Aoun, meanwhile, in a move that smacked of dementia, went on the offensive against Muslim forces in West Beirut, in the Bekaa and in the Lebanese mountains. On a huge scale, he used artillery in an attempt to shell the opposition into oblivion. It was a futile exercise because it had been tried so many times before. The casualties at the end, the general recalls, were horrendous.
There would be lulls. Then the fighting would start again - in April and August 1989, with intermittent skirmishes in between. After Elias Hrawi had been elected president (following the murder of Moawad), Aoun inexplicably turned his guns on his former Christian associates. There had apparently been bitter differences with Dr. Samir Geagea (who has since been jailed for life for his role in the assassination of former National Liberal party leader Dani Shamoun). This created even more schisms. In a sense, General Lahoud explained, it was structured suicide.
Meanwhile, Lahoud's differences with Aoun (and the fact that he stood by his principles of faith, which we now know remained uncompromised throughout these difficult times) had not gone unnoticed. Following a resolution by the Council of Ministers, he was charged with the command of the army on November 26, 1989. His orders were to start immediately with the reconstruction of the national defense force.
Finally, on October 13, 1990, four brigades led by General Lahoud launched an attack against Aoun's stronghold in Baabda. His former boss took refuge in the French embassy and went into exile in France shortly afterwards. General Lahoud's anecdotes about the cease-fire that followed are incisive.
"There was still some sporadic shooting on the first morning that I arrived at Fakher Eddine (one of the larger Lebanese Army bases in the heart of West Beirut's Muslim quarter). There I found everyone cowering in basements and bomb shelters; all were terrified and surprised to see me, though the purpose of my visit had been widely broadcast. Trouble was, in the eyes of so many of them, I was just another functionary trying to patch things together."
Lahoud addressed those present and amplified the small print. Anyone who came across to the newly reconstructed Lebanese Armed Forces, he said, would be part of a revitalized multi-confessional force. It would be totally different from before, when each unit in the national army had a religious or a regional color. It only became clear later that much of this had been the initiative of the Syrian president. Somehow Asad had been persuaded that to allow hostilities in the neighboring state to continue would only become counterproductive. Also, the dynamics of this unchecked carnage was affecting his own economy as well as his standing in the Arab world.
In the pre-civil-war days, Lahoud explained, Maronite, Druze, Shia, Greek Orthodox, Sunni or Greek Catholic units were recruited, each from a specific region. These men would serve in that region. It was to be expected, said the general, that such a situation would create Muslim and Christian battalions or brigades. "It had always been the source of much friction," he recalled.
"This must end. The army must mirror the nation," Lahoud told that first gathering at Fakher Eddine. He reminded them that it was not how it had been in the past. Previously, religious, political and party influences played a seminal role in the careers of most serving officers. If an officer thought that he was due for promotion, or possibly sought a specific post overseas at one of the embassies as a military attache, he would lobby family or political connections. Whether he got the job or not had little to do with competence. "The system was corrupt from the top down," he said.
That period, General Lahoud stressed, was over. "Members serving in the force today are strictly prohibited from having contact with politicians. Moreover, they may not attend religious parties or political rallies. If they do, they are out."
More important, he told that initial cash-strapped meeting, echoing something he would repeat many times in the months ahead, those serving in the armed forces would have their salaries raised. At that time, such things were unheard of. Also, their pensions would be reinstated. Housing and other perks would be reallocated. In short, with some exceptions, conditions would revert to what they had been before the start of the war in the early seventies.
When he asked those at Fakher Eddine who was prepared to come across to the new army, about two-thirds of those present raised their hands. Obviously, he recalls, some of the old guard thought he was crazy. So did some political hardliners as well as those who simply could not forgive. "I showed them the door; there would be no hard feelings." What he needed was the active support of every man who stayed, he said. He sought a secure measure of what he referred to as "dedicated commitment," something that Lebanon hadn't seen for years.
"If I couldn't succeed in creating a new and revitalized security force, I told the assembled soldiers, then it was over. Our children would still be fighting each other in 20 years. ls that what you want for the nation?" he asked. The general had presented his men with an elusive but desirable logic. To those who had seen so much bloodshed, he made good sense. They did not need to be reminded that it was the only logical course of action.
To begin with, General Lahoud was able to attract the core of a few hundred officers and men. In the period that followed, he visited half a dozen military bases. Gradually the tally grew. After a few weeks his "converts" were into four figures. When the first raised salaries were paid, the numbers doubled. With that, General Lahoud ordered some of his more experienced officers to fan out to other parts of the country to propound the mechanics of the new order. His optimum target4 was a professional force of about 80,000 men and a handful of women (the highest-ranking female in 1998, a dentist, is a captain).
One of the biggest problems, General Lahoud recounts, was getting across to the men that the old system - the antiquated system, as he called it and which was based as much on corruption as on political clout - would no longer apply. There was to be no outside interference in the armed forces, he stressed. Also, advancement was to be based solely on merit. His benchmark quote, then and now, was that while old ranks would stand, only meritocracy would prevail.
"And so it evolved gradually, without ministers or party functionaries breathing down my neck," he said. He explained that for every opening or advancement in the Lebanese Armed Forces, all applicants would be required to take formal examinations. The highest marks, whatever the background, would count. There were to be no exceptions. It was not easy. In certain parts of the country, such as at Tripoli in the north and in the Shiite regions adjacent to the Israeli border, the new military order encountered a sometimes fearful animosity towards the army. Many of these people had exchanged blows with the military in the past, which was why he was obliged to try a different tack.
"I went to Tripoli with a fairly large contingent and told the local leaders that I wanted to help them. Yes, yes, they said, they had heard it all before. So I did not ask them for their blessing. Instead, I put the army to work. We removed acres of garbage that had piled up over the years. It was a massive task but it made an impact; the people there had almost become accustomed to the stench. That done, my men started knocking down some of the buildings that had been condemned. Then I put them to work painting public buildings," he said. It was not long before the locals could see that Lahoud was serious. Also, it helped that when the people in a region talked to the men on the ground, they got it all first hand. "While they might have been skeptical about what I said, it was different when it was coming from one of their own," he added.
"It was the same in Sidon and Tyre, where organizations like Amal and Hizbollah were already well entrenched. They certainly did not need me or my men moving into their areas." Anyway, he added, both groups had had serious differences with the Anny (and each other) in the past, as had the Druze. "Gradually, all of them came to accept us."
It was the general's view that the toughest hurdle was the quasi-independent Lebanese Force Command, the all powerful Phalangist group that had effectively been a "government within a government." This strictly Christian force numbered thousands. Also, it was a well ordered conventional army, and they were never short of cash. More significant, these were the same people among whom he had grown up.
Strategically, the Lebanese Force Command controlled much of the region to the immediate north of Beirut. Jounieh, their biggest city, had been the principal entry point to the region for the duration of the war, usually by sea from Cyprus (which was the way almost all of us correspondents who covered the war came in). The general said that he worked steadily on them all. These were his people and, in the end, like the rest, they succumbed. The Phalangists laid down their weapons and handed over a huge quantity of stockpiled arms and munitions. When the bulk of the Christians came across, his numbers again increased substantially. What surprised him at the time was that the final transition phase went as smoothly as it did. Ultimately, he suggested, there might be a lesson there somewhere for Northern Ireland.
It wasn't until early 1991 that most of the independent militias had begun the process of dissolution. By then the Lebanese Armed Forces included naval as well as air force detachments, and for the first time the country's military was able to operate as a professional, disciplined military force.
General Lahoud instituted further measures that would eventually ensure total integration. These included rotating military units between regions so that none of them became tied to any party, religion or group. It was a revolutionary concept by Levantine standards, never tried before. As I was to see for myself at the Yarze Force Headquarters, the officers with whom I came into contact came from virtually every comer of the country. Christians and Muslims shared offices and commands. I encountered very little tension.
My personal escort, Lieutenant Hussein Ghaddar, a young Shiite from a wealthy Sidon family, had originally graduated from the American University of Beirut. His personal hero, he told me, was his commanding general, and that was not for effect. I spent a week with the man and I got to know him well enough to accept that he had embraced General Lahoud's vision as his own. He was proud of what the man had done for his country. After my visit, Hussein left for a six-month military course at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.5
Lt. Ghaddar typifies the new generation of Lebanese officer. He is well educated (with a business degree), speaks fluent English, drives like a maniac and was rarely, if ever, separated from his cell phone. One of his first postings after being commissioned was to an army base in the Christian enclave of Jounieh, where, he delights in saying, he made lasting friendships.
The touchstone of some of the policies instituted by General Emile Lahoud was his insistence that there had to be no political interference in the reconstruction process. It bears close examination because of the intrusive nature of political involvement in the military affairs of the country in the past. Initially, the general was vigorously opposed by some of the more radical parliamentarians when he insisted on the total integration and the formation of multiconfessional units within the army. A succession of harsh personal character attacks followed. These came mainly from people who felt that their ethnic or religious power base was being eroded. Called to answer by the politicians, Lahoud told them that he was simply following orders. Any questions about the matter, he insisted, should be directed at the country's Council of Ministers.
Although Lahoud had stipulated from the start that he was not prepared to comment on the Syrian role in any of these developments, there is a perception within the diplomatic community that nothing could or would have happened had Asad not given the nod. And once that process had begun, it was not worth anyone's career (or, in extremis, life) to oppose his will.
The same occurred when Lahoud started rotating units between the north, east and south. And even more so, later, when he instituted what is termed in Lebanon, "Flag Service," a euphemism for national conscription. All Lebanese, on leaving school or university, are required to do a year-long stint in uniform. Exemptions are given only to eldest sons and to sole family supporters.
Like the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces, youngsters entering the army for the first time are sent to units that are thoroughly integrated on both a religious and a cultural basis. To many of the older generation, this was anathema. The very idea of having their children rubbing shoulders with the progeny of a former enemy on a day-to-day basis was abhorrent. It cut deep into traditional values, Lahoud explained. More to the point, he suggested, it had never been done before.
"But we soon found that it was one of the best ways to build the nation. Like it or not, these young people, almost all of them school-leavers, were associating with one another in a way that would have been impossible before. They shared the same tasks, the same mess halls, similar sleeping quarters and the rest."
It was not long, he said, before they discovered that their roots went deep and that there were very few differences among them. They spoke the same language, ate the same food and quickly learnt to deride the sergeant who made their lives a misery, regardless of whether it was a Friday or a Sunday that he kept holy.
"Obviously there were problems to begin with, but since we started in 1993 with the first intake of 2,500, the system has worked remarkably well," said the commander. Since then he has put his own son through the system.
The acquisition of new arms and equipment for the Lebanese Armed Forces was a different matter. According to General Lahoud, the politicians were not only willing but eager to finance arms deals. But he knew that if he was pulled into that porous, dangerous net, there were those who would be able to manipulate the business and demand their share of the take. "I would have none of it," he affirmed. Consequently, feelers were put out to various friendly governments. Just about everyone who was asked came forward with something.
Washington handed Lebanon 3,000 tactical vehicles at a symbolic price of $100 for a jeep and $1,000 for a truck. The Americans "sold" the army scores of M49 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) as well as 860 M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) to supplement the 180 Russian built T54/55 MBTs that Lebanon received as a gift from Syria. Egypt provided some artillery. More tactical vehicles and logistics support came from France and Italy.
The navy received nine coastal patrol craft from Britain; though dated, they were adequate for patrolling the country's narrow offshore area. In any event, smuggling today is more of a problem in the eastern Mediterranean than insurgency. France, in turn, handed over two Edie-class tank landing ships. In 1995, the army air wing was handed 16 refurbished Bell UH-I H (Huey) helicopters by America. Four years later the standards of flying and maintenance are such that all 16 are still operational.
As a result, General Lahoud has been able to deploy about 40 percent of his force along an east-west tangent across the country to the south of Sidon. Almost all of it faces Israel's self-declared security zone. It is a situation, he says, which will remain in effect as long as the IDF sits on a square centimeter of Lebanese soil. He stressed that while just about all the militias had been disbanded (and those that agreed to it incorporated within the national force) only Hezbollah was allowed to retain some weapons "with which to protect themselves." Amal had handed its hardware over a while back.
As for the future, General Lahoud was optimistic. He and his officers, he said, worked on specific programs. Of course, he added, as in any military force there were problems, but they were handled on a day-to-day basis. Short of a full invasion by Israel, there was nothing, he felt, that the Lebanese Armed Forces would not be able to handle. For instance, he said, the army had taken the mini-rebellion by the former Hezbollah leader Skeikh Subhi alTufayli at his Bekaa headquarters in its stride. They had met force with force, and while there had been casualties, Tufayli's influence had been neutralized. There had also been several narcotic raids into the Bekaa.
The general's biggest concern, mid-1998, he intimated, was the Israeli military presence in the south, which, he said, had gotten bigger in the past year or two, not smaller. But he was certain that, with the recent moves by Jerusalem to pull the IDF behind its own frontiers, there was reason for optimism.
EPILOGUE: PRESIDENT LAHOUD
By the time this goes to print, General Emile Lahoud will be ensconced in Baabda, as president of Lebanon. It is a good choice, one of the few to come out of the Levant in recent years. Modest and soft-spoken, he typically offers an uncluttered, surgical approach to the issues that confront him. He proved that when, in short order, he first pulled Lebanon out of the bloody morass into which the country had been plunged by years of senseless civil war and then set it on the road to reconstruction. Eight years ago this was viewed by everyone, this writer included, as an impossible task.
Not everybody in Lebanon is happy with the choice of General Emile Lahoud as the new president. One of the first things that Speaker Nabih Berri did on being told of the choice was to play down fears that Lahoud's election would pave the way for military rule. The Maronite patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir remained notably restrained on his accession, but then he had earlier spoken out publicly on the matter. There are some who feel that it might have something to do with the role of Syria's Asad. Nothing happens in Lebanon without his acquiescence. Of course, the Israelis cannot be all that charmed; the general has bitterly opposed an Israeli military presence in the south.
Born in Baabdat in a Christian enclave in January, 1936, he learnt to use English fluently while still at school. That makes him trilingual; he has an equal facility with French, and naturally, Arabic. He joined the Military College in 1956 and then, as a naval officer, attended Dartmouth Naval College in the U.K. He went back in 1986 when he took a course in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in addition to a navy engineering course at the Naval Engineering Academy.
Apart from a marked technical bent, he reads voraciously and is incredibly well informed on a range of international issues. President Elias Hrawi named Lahoud army commander in 1989 and his nine year term has been exceeded only by President Fouad Chebab's 13 consecutive years.
1 Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1989).
2 Judith Miller, God Has Ninety-Nine Names (Touchstone Books, New York, 1996).
3 Personal interview at military headquarters, Yarze, August, 1997.
4 The Lebanese: Armed Forces today numbers about 66,000 and is climbing. It also includes a crack new special forces unit, the Marine Commandos, that were trained by U.S. Navy Seals and Britain's Royal Marines.
5 He completed his overseas training in mid-1998 and returned to active service in Lebanon.