Friday, October 23, 2009

Senior officials in the Obama administration are batting around the notion that the Taliban in Afghanistan could play a role comparable to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to The Washington Post.

In the article, an unnamed official emphasized that Hezbollah does not threaten the United States (a surprising notion given the nefarious role Hezbollah has played in Iraq), and he appears to envision a Hezbollah model for the Taliban.

Those considering such a policy would be wise to reflect on Lebanon’s experience with Hezbollah operating under the guise of political participation. It is worth asking the question, therefore: Has Hezbollah evolved or, at a minimum, moderated, since it began actively participating in Lebanese politics?

Since its inception, Hezbollah has made two significant decisions to participate in Lebanese politics. In 1992, Hezbollah first ran candidates in Lebanese parliamentary elections, only after receiving a formal ruling from Iran’s supreme leader, and in 2005 it formally joined the Lebanese Cabinet for the first time.

Hezbollah official Ali Fayyad admits that Hezbollah chose to join the Cabinet once “profound transformations in the Lebanese political balance after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops” compelled Hezbollah to reconsider its tactics. It is clear that these were tactical moves informed by changes in the political context; in no way did such decisions alter Hezbollah’s strategic goals.

In contrast to common wisdom, preserving Hezbollah’s ultimate strategy - the “resistance” - and military autonomy were the driving factors behind Hezbollah’s political participation.

This was articulated by a Hezbollah spokesman in a 2007 interview with the International Crisis Group: “Paradoxically, some want us to get involved in the political process in order to neutralize us. In fact, we intend to get involved - but precisely in order to protect the strategic choice of resistance.”

As Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanese politics has deepened, it has simply used the political system as yet another tool with which to wield its agenda. Again, one can look to Hezbollah’s leadership to understand its perspective on political participation.

“In Hezbollah’s view,” explains Mr. Fayyad, “it was no longer possible to pursue the resistance project and correct the state-building process from outside the structure of power.” Therefore, political participation is a tool that enables Hezbollah to co-opt the state, rather than vice versa.

From inside the power structure, Hezbollah is well-positioned to monitor the state and other political actors, and to force them (by arms, if necessary) to comply with its regional agenda. In other words, Hezbollah’s political participation is the utter bastardization and inexorable destruction of democracy. They are using the system to protect their status outside of it, not to integrate within it.

Furthermore, Hezbollah’s participation in politics has enabled it to direct the political dialogue in its favor. As Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, articulated in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, “The question no longer was whether the Resistance will remain or not.” Rather, “the question is, how does the rest of society integrate into the Resistance?”

Of course, wielding intimidation and weapons is integral to this effort, as it allows Hezbollah to overrule the Lebanese system’s inherent constraints. Because it holds formidable military power, Lebanese political actors are in no position to negotiate with Hezbollah as they would any other political force.

In the last four years alone, Hezbollah has managed repeatedly to paralyze the decision-making system even as its coalition has twice lost in parliamentary elections.

Further, Hezbollah’s efforts to destroy the constitutional traditions of Lebanon and its invention of new constitutional precedents under the implicit, or at times, explicit threat of arms, does not bode well for Lebanese democracy.

More worrisome is Hezbollah’s efforts to infiltrate the administrative bureaucracies, and security and intelligence apparatus, thereby precluding the Lebanese state from fully exerting its sovereignty. Put differently, Hezbollah’s legacy in the Lebanese system to date has been, more than anything, a negation of the political.

Comparing Hezbollah to the Taliban is difficult for a host of reasons, not least because the Taliban do not have a state sponsor relationship equivalent to Hezbollah’s reliance on Iran nor does Lebanon’s confessional structure begin to compare to Afghan tribal dynamics.

Yet it is clear that Hezbollah’s role as a political player in Lebanon is highly problematic and leaves much to be desired. Those hoping for the Taliban to mimic Hezbollah should be careful what they wish for.

Mara E. Karlin served as the Pentagon’s Levant director. Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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