Lebanon’s military spending, relative to the size of its economy, is among the highest in the world. Given this, it is only right and proper for` the Lebanese to ask: What am I getting for my tax dollars?
The skirmishes in North Lebanon recently did well to highlight what the Lebanese are not getting from their money, with the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) stating that he would not deploy his forces in Tripoli until he was certain they would not have to exchange fire with gunmen in the area.
This policy of ‘soft action’ throws in doubt the image the LAF fosters for itself as a cross-confessional entity that is the single most important unifying force in the country, the ‘heart of the nation’ with no sectarian affiliation, loyal only to mother Lebanon. Were this the case, though, shouldn’t the army be able to intervene when sectarian divisions begin tearing parts of the country apart?
The Lebanese defense establishment accounts for nearly 15 percent of government expenditure. The LAF is accorded the lion’s share of the defense budget, at least 85 percent of which is spent on salaries and allowances for staff. A large part of this spending has no military application; officers enjoy extensive perks ranging from free gasoline to soldiers acting as personal drivers to take their kids to school. Meanwhile, the LAF’s own internal estimates report that it needs at least $1.3 billion for essential force development, including communication equipment, training and weapons; between 2005 and 2008 only $90 million was spent in this regard, mostly on spare parts and logistics. This has left the army with out-dated equipment, most of which was procured through donations.
The LAF’s battle against Fatah Al Islam insurgents at Nahr El Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007 painfully exposed the inadequacy of the Army’s equipment, with media reports that soldiers were dropping hand grenades from helicopters. The battle could not have been won without emergency United States and Gulf military support; the LAF nearly ran out of ammunition a few weeks into the three-month conflict. In 2010 the situation was so dire that then-Minister of Defense Elias Murr appealed to civilians to contribute money into a Central Bank account to buy the army arms.
While all this suggests the LAF is underfunded, evaluating whether funds are adequate is difficult when it is unclear what the Lebanese Army is actually supposed to do. A strategic plan for the LAF is non-existent, as politicians have failed to create a National Defense Strategy to articulate its mission. The recent resumption of the National Dialogue could, potentially, solve this problem.
According to the Taif Accord, the LAF mandate is to protect Lebanon against external foes, specifically Israel, with its secondary task to support the ISF. In terms of external security, however, Hezbollah has usurped the LAF’s role, being vastly better armed and trained to face the threat over the southern border. The army has, de facto, been relegated to supporting the ISF. But when the army stands aside as Sunni and Alawite militias battle it out in the north, how effective can it be in ensuring internal security?
The reason the LAF cannot intervene is because it is staffed with Lebanese: While warring with Fatah Al Islam was an easy choice — given that the militants were largely non-Lebanese — the army is loathe to move against any sect in the country, lest the army itself begin to fracture along sectarian lines.
Thus, it would seem that the LAF’s main function is as a conduit for financial support for a large portion of the nation, a ‘militarization of welfare’ if you will. The LAF and Internal Security Forces (ISF) are some of Lebanon’s largest employers — with the LAF employing 59,000 soldiers, while some 10 percent of the Lebanese population is reliant on military affiliation for healthcare, according to military sources, not to mention education for their children and pensions. This situation is not uncommon in the region; Jordan and Egypt are both examples where a heavy reliance on the military has entrenched loyalty to the state.
But is that what the Lebanese want their army to be?
Without a National Defense Strategy to end the ambiguity surrounding the LAF’s role in the country, there can be no progress. Only with an articulated mandate can reforms be given direction, training and equipment acquisitions made purposeful, and standards set against which the army’s competency can be measured. Then perhaps, the Lebanese will know what their money is buying, and salute the protectors of the country for their service.