Analysis: The later the better for an int'l force

Precedent suggests that no foreign force will be a match for Hizbullah if the fighting ends prematurely.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Even today, 23 years later, the attack remains the deadliest on Americans overseas since World War II. On the morning of October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber - smiling, according to one survivor, and widely believed to have been dispatched by Hizbullah - smashed his yellow Mercedes truck through the barbed wire fence of the US Marines compound near Beirut International Airport and detonated some 5,400 kilograms of explosives in the lobby of the four-story headquarters building. When the last body had finally been extricated from the rubble days later, the toll of the dead was 220 Marines, 18 US Navy personnel and three US soldiers. Just seconds after the first blast, a similar bombing was carried out at the barracks of the Sixth French Paratroop Infantry Regiment. In this case, the bomber drove into the underground parking garage and blew up the building, killing 58 paratroopers. The twin Beirut bombings essentially spelled the end of the last attempt to maintain a multinational force in Lebanon. Now, with US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair endorsing the idea, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is back in Jerusalem trying to begin the process of setting up another such force. The likelihood is that, unlike last time, the US will not be playing a central role in staffing such a mission. Its military is fully stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. "As far as boots on the ground, that doesn't seem to be in the cards," said John R. Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, over the weekend. Instead, the talk is of 10-20,000 troops led by France and/or Turkey, with possible contingents from Germany, Italy, India, Brazil and Pakistan. But with European troops bound to be targeted by Hizbullah and its allies, some commentators are suggesting that any European role should be backed up with forces from the Arab world - from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and/or Jordan. However composed, the concern for Israel is that the force simply will not survive in the vicious territory where it will deploy. And, ironically given the international pressure for its establishment, the strong sense in Israel is that the sooner it takes shape and the Israeli-Hizbullah fighting ends, the poorer the force's chances of having a constructive impact and a viable future. Anxious to minimize Lebanese civilian casualties, concerned not to find itself reoccupying Lebanon, determined to limit its ground force fatalities, yet increasingly aware of the limitations of its air power, the IDF is, nonetheless, daily weakening the potent guerrilla infrastructure Hizbullah has painstakingly constructed over the past six years. Its commanders chorus, day after intense, taxing day rooting out a thoroughly entrenched guerrilla force, that it still has much more left to do. If a ceasefire comes sooner rather than later, purported "good news" for international diplomacy would likely turn out to be very bad news indeed for the international troops left to grapple with a defiant, even victorious Hizbullah. The current international force in the area, UNIFIL, patently posed no obstacle whatsoever to Hizbullah's accruing of power. Even a genuinely robust international force, with a genuinely robust mandate, would be immensely vulnerable to anything but a Hizbullah overwhelmingly degraded by the ongoing attentions of the IDF. For Israel, however, the concerns are still more acute. Whenever the fighting ends, it will be the task of the international force to assist the Lebanese army, a goodly part of it pro-Hizbullah, in bringing its sovereign force all the way down south, at the expense of Hizbullah. It will be the task of the international force to assist the Lebanese army in destroying what remains of Hizbullah's missile capacity. And it will be the task of the international force to deploy at key border positions and take the other necessary steps to prevent the rehabilitation of Hizbullah via military supplies from Iran and Syria. This adds up to an extraordinarily complex mission. The precedents are grim indeed. And the sooner the international force is tasked with its mission and despatched, effectively taking over from the IDF, the more remote its prospects of success.