Addressing the Civil-Military Relations Crisis in Lebanon
As part of a series highlighting key challenges facing Lebanon, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies has sought input from leading experts on what the new government’s priorities should be. Capitalizing on gains made over the past decade to modernize and sustain the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF) institutional and military capabilities remains a key challenge for the country. This article examines four specific challenges facing Lebanon and its armed forces. To best address these challenges, this article proposes the adoption of a proactive strategy entailing engagement between the country’s civilian and military leadership, which takes into account intra-institutional communication and planning, civilian and military input on strategy formation, defense budget allocations, and the LAF’s leadership crisis.
Michel Aoun’s election as president and the formation of a new cabinet under Prime Minister Saad Hariri after a twenty-six-month presidential vacuum should theoretically bolster efforts to consolidate the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). It could also signal an opportunity to rehabilitate long-stalled government-driven efforts to support Lebanese military development. However, the Government of Lebanon (GOL) and the LAF face four critical challenges if Lebanon is to secure gains made over the 2005-2016 period and forestall the risks of deeper long-term military decay and institutional entropy.
The first key challenge is civil-military incoherence on strategy. The foundation of any real-word defense policy is a national defense strategy driven by a coherent set of interests and objectives anchored on assumptions tied to resource constraints, the threat environment a given nation faces, along with the mix of key allies and international institutions that support it. This, in turn, informs the formulation of a military strategy, which assesses key military risks, alternative policy options, and requirements for sustainable force development.
In April 2013, the LAF finalized “Defending Lebanon: Lebanese Armed Forces Capabilities Development Plan 2013 – 2017”, commonly referred to simply as the CDP. The CDP was the first major strategic document produced by the LAF to address critical mission areas, minimum force capabilities, targets in terms of professionalizing LAF standard operating procedures, and linking this overall effort to budgeting and future funding in both an inter-agency and a civil–military environment. However, the CDP is not a panacea. It enjoyed minimal government buy-in, even less support from the country’s competing political/sectarian factions, and at best constitutes a bottom up attempt to formulate parts of a Lebanese military strategy.
Meanwhile, civilian input on strategy formulation in Lebanon remains subordinated to the narrow calculations of the country’s competing political/sectarian elites. The concept of a national defense strategy has been removed from its traditionally technical context. Instead, it is often articulated in terms of internal political brinksmanship, or the foreign policy preferences of key external allies and patrons. This atomization precludes defining a commonly held set of national interests or foreign policy prerogatives. The absence of such a definition prevents the emergence of real-world strategic policy-making centered on ways and means.
The second challenge is the planning and resourcing gap tied to military development. The LAF expanded from a force of 59,000 in 2010 to some 68,300 troops in 2015. On the surface, Lebanese defense expenditures also appeared to increase over the 2005 to 2013 period. However, when adjusted for inflation, defense expenditures were broadly flat during that period, even showing more than minor reductions in spending for 2011 and 2012.
In a tentative bid to offset the centrality of external assistance in shaping Lebanese military development, on 24 November 2015, the Lebanese Parliament in concert with the Council of Ministers under article 62 of the constitution issued Expedited Law No. 30. The law stipulated that the GOL would commit some $894.6 million toward LAF force modernization, recapitalization, and military sustainment over the 2016-2020 period. The law was meant to support the LAF leadership’s military development efforts spearheaded under the aegis of the CDP. It was also intended to reassure anxious donor partners regarding GOL burden-sharing associated with LAF recapitalization.
However, the adopted budget law remains deeply flawed. A two-year delay—a byproduct of Lebanon’s divisive sectarian politics—meant that its adoption was divorced from the CDP’s 2013-2017 timeframe. The law slashed the CDP’s acquisition budget by some 44%, and all but eliminated allocations tied to offensive and defensive capabilities, focusing instead on transportation systems, maintenance, and infrastructure projects. Lastly, the law left the GOL with a discretionary exit clause, allowing it to reduce annual allocation values based on external grant aid and assistance provided to Lebanon and the LAF. Only some $15 million of the more than $170 million which was allocated in 2016 was spent as of January 2017.
The third challenge—and possibly the most critical—is the LAF’s military leadership crisis. The 2011 to 2016 period saw officers from the LAF’s 1980, 1982, 1983, and 1985 cohorts take on major leadership posts at LAF headquarters and key regiment and brigade-level units. A small group of officers from the 1980 cohort were thought to be among the best choices to serve as commander of the LAF at the end of General Jean Kahwaji’s tenure in September 2013. However, this did not transpire. In an effort to maintain the illusion of normalcy, Lebanon’s competing factions agreed to repeated term extensions for the commander of the LAF and his chief of staff. Billed by some officers as a necessary evil in the name of stability, over time, extensions have robbed whole cohorts of their chance to compete for many of the LAF’s top leadership posts.
Between August 2016 and September 2017, some eighty-six general officers would have retired from the LAF, many if not most of them before the retirement of a commanding general who was ten years their senior. This includes institutional change agents who had spearheaded the CDP, conceptualized and established the LAF’s land border regiments, conceptualized the LAF’s 2025 vision, and reshaped how the LAF engaged with external partners and upgraded the LAF’s approach to military acquisition. The effect of their departures was compounded by the slow and inconsistent processes by which key posts were turned over to officers that were often unable or unwilling to sustain such a demanding transformation. Meanwhile, once-motivated junior officers now see themselves as orphans of a military leadership crisis they could not hope to shape or influence.
The final challenge is Lebanon’s mix of bilateral and multilateral military commitments. The Strategic Dialogue between the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL) and the LAF is a working road map to building the capacity of existing and new LAF units and drawing down current UNIFIL troop levels in the South Litani Sector. With the United Kingdom, a pilot border management effort is now a multi-million-pound endeavor to consolidate Lebanon’s already significant border defense and surveillance forces. The US and the LAF continue to deepen robust military-to-military ties through existing military assistance programs, coordination with US Special Operations Command at the LAF’s Hamat airbase, Defense Threat Reduction Agency support to border surveillance, and the Pentagon’s Defense Institution Reform Initiative to build up and institutionalize LAF planning and acquisition processes.
Each of the three previous challenges directly affect and are affected by how the LAF navigates the relationships and expectations it has built as a force. Meanwhile, countries providing military aid are also assessing the intentions of the new Aoun-Hariri government based on how it meets challenges tied to sustaining Lebanese military development. By February 2017, most of the LAF’s external partners—especially the US—have begun to feel the impact of uncertain personnel changes; flagship partnerships no longer enjoy the momentum they did over the 2011 to 2016 period and key partners are growing anxious over whether the GOL will select a competent and empowered general officer to lead the LAF.
In a world marked by change, Lebanon does not have the luxury of mismanaging its contentious civil-military relations. If the country is to meet the goals of the LAF’s long-term vision, along with honoring external commitments and partnerships, the GOL must proactively collaborate with military principals to avoid—and in some cases reverse—the worst effects of these challenges. Lebanon will have to make the difficult shift from an external grant-driven military development model to one that leverages public funds predictably from fiscal year to fiscal year, possibly through targets based on a set percentage of annual gross domestic product. Also, it must find the right kind of military leadership that can sustain and consolidate the LAF’s long-term force transformation.