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The War Nerd October 3, 2007
Nahr al Bared: A Squeamish Siege
The art of the seige By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4

The Lebanese Army has always been a weird outfit, the way all these multiethnic armies are. Nobody in the world really gets the multiethnic deal anyway, we all just fake it. In the old simple days the Lebanese Christians ran the place, kept the Muslims in their place and controlled of the army. Now it’s integrated, sort of. All of Lebanon’s colourful 18 ethno-religious groups are represented in this 72,000-strong force. That’s how the brochures tell it anyway. The fact is that the Lebanese Army only has a few thousand effectives, most of them in the Special Forces. They’ve got elite regiments in each of the services, and they do some serious training, such as three months of training with only a couple hours sleep a day. Don’t know exactly what that’s for--maybe dealing with that Arab coffee--but at least when you’ve finished that stint you’ve proved you’re serious.

And in a way it was lucky for Lebanon that the armed forces only have a few decent troops. Because if you really, seriously want to limit civilian casualties, the fewer troops you use the better. If you ask me, we have way, way too many troops in Iraq--too many of the wrong kind, dumb shooters. We’d do better off with a few hundred guys with a double major in admin and assassination. Too many grunts guarantees a lot of massacres, the wrong kind of massacre, the kind that leave pissed-off relatives. If you’re going to massacre, do it right--think Mongols in Baghdad. If you’re not up to that, to using nukes--then do it sly, quiet--think Stalin.

The Lebanese Army did things right in their Nahr al Bared campaign; they managed not to kill too many Palestinians (which is always the temptation when you go into one of those camps; it’s like going down the bakery aisle when you’re hungry) and they got rid of Fatah al Islam.

The downside is, it took a ridiculously long time to do it--three months! To clean out a couple hundred amateurs! And they lost a ridiculous number of their own men--150 KIA--doing it. There’s no military justification for that sort of delay or casualty count. But there’s a political justification for it, and until the nukes come out it’s the only way to run these operations. If the Army had just levelled the camp, Lebanon would be the new hot vacation spot for every Saudi who couldn’t pass his exams and decided martyrdom is the easy career option. It already is sort of like that; the head of Fatah al Islam was one of these Pals who’ve knocked around the whole Arab world, and most of his guys were supposedly foreigners. That’s what the press says, anyway; it might even be true, although it might also be PR by the Lebanese and their US coaches: “it’s all those outside agitators!” I just don’t know.

What an army needs in a siege like this is a particular kind of discipline, the kind that keeps you from gunning down every civvie in sight after your buddy steps on a hand grenade in the door of a refugee family’s house. Because the whole trick, for the hardcore urban insurgent, is to push the army into killing huge numbers of civvies, or massacring prisoners, or both. Go back to the Brits in Dublin in 1916. They had the first kind of discipline--by Anglo-Irish standards they hardly massacred any civvies in putting down the 1916 rebellion. But then they shot the prisoners, and for some reason that drove the locals crazy. So many ways you can go wrong in these deals.

As far as I know the Lebanese troops didn’t shoot down all that many unarmed refugees--you have to allow them a few dozen, I mean, but nothing out of line. They killed a lot of civilians, but they did it by artillery fire, the way the Israelis did in Beirut in 1982. People don’t mind as much when it’s done from way off, like by a plane or an sp155 shell. When the IDF was trying to push Arafat out of Beirut in 1982, when he was holed up in a Palestinian ghetto, they used the same technique, blasting the whole neighbourhood til the neighbors said, “Please, Yassir, take a little trip to Tunisia, the beaches are so much nicer, and besides I still have a kid or two left and I’d like to see how they turn out!” Which he finally did.

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Gary Brecher
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