The starting point of any discussion on the LAF and its needs must begin with an honest assessment: it is a dysfunctional and inefficient organization that has no vision, no serious doctrine, no strong leadership, etc. And after its passive behavior during the Hezbollah takeover of May 2008, does anyone doubt that significant swaths of the population have trust issues with the Army? If anything, it is in the image of the country. The reality is one of an overstretched force, poor managerial and strategic skills at the top, inadequate equipment and training and perennial concerns about force cohesion.
Understandably, most Lebanese like to think otherwise because they need to hold on to something that unifies them and makes them proud and the LAF is that thing. But such emotions cannot be the starting point of a policy that aims at building up a serious military that can provide for the security of the country.
The Lebanese complain about US military assistance because complaining can be done at zero-cost and is politically expedient, but anyone who has any notion of defense reform and modernization, especially in weak countries like Lebanon, and has worked with the LAF knows that the US is a secondary problem. Of course, the US will continue to deny Lebanon high-tech weaponry and other cool toys we would love our soldiers to handle, but that is missing the real point.
Here is an analogy that could help:
It may be true that the QME (Qualitative Military Edge, the Pentagon’s fancy term for saying that it will not provide weaponry to Arab allies that would given them an edge over Israel) is a problem, but right now the LAF is a broken car, with a shaky steering wheel, windows that don’t go up or down, no reliable brakes, no possibility of speeding or slowing down at will, no ability to safely negotiate steep curves, only a functioning AC and nice leather seats in which an officer can sit and parade around in, and the QME is that big hole a hundred kilometers away.
A sense of perspective is in dire need here, lest we Lebanese want to continue making fools of ourselves.
Elias Muhanna says it is all about image, and he is right – we need to create the perception that the LAF is a competent and capable force so that the country has something to hold on to, and cool toys may do just that. But if is about that and just that, then let’s drop the pretense that we are having a serious discussion about defense modernization and let’s stop blaming the Americans for the support they are providing, however inadequate it may seem.
In the absence of a Lebanese national security strategy, a defense doctrine, a division of labor between LAF and ISF, a better chain of command, procurement, training and HR policies, reorganization of the force (do we really need mechanized brigades? can we pay engineers to fly Apaches? can we train Lebanese technicians to maintain the F16s we dream of?) etc, let’s be thankful that the Americans are helping us with mobility, communication, ammunition and training. No one else is doing it at this scale, albeit a modest one compared to the LAF needs. Could or has anyone else provided the kind of crucial help that the LAF needed during Nahr el-Bared?
The fundamental problem is that we are nowhere close to defining our defense strategy. Hezbollah does not want a serious discussion about its weapons, much less a defense strategy. It wants to set it, and enroll the LAF and the rest of the country in it. The Syrians don’t want it either. When they were occupying Lebanon, did they bother to turn the LAF into a better army or did they turn chunks of it into an instrument of domestic control? The IDF is happy with a heavy Lebanese military that can be bombed from the air and scared into not doing anything. The Lebanese officers want their army clubs and SUVs and benefits. The Lebanese MPs don’t even know the size and breakdown of the defense budget (all they have is the number of the MI officer in their region for some wasta). There is no professional civilian staff at Yarze.
In the best of all worlds, we would have a serious defense review that would conclude that we need a military fashioned à la Hezbollah – special forces, light infantry, officers and NCOs that have a sense of initiative, good communication, anti-tank weaponry, good intelligence and reconnaissance assets, some helicopters, coastal radars, even air defense at some point – but hopefully without the thousands of rockets and missiles that Hezbollah deploys. Such a force would do a far better job at protecting Lebanon at a much cheaper cost, and the QME would not be an insurmountable problem. But poking fun at the Americans, it seems, is too good a game to face reality.