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Rebuilding Armed Forces: Learning from Iraq and Lebanon

Rebuilding Armed Forces: Learning from Iraq and Lebanon - Cover

Authored by Dr. Florence Gaub.

May 2011

49 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Security Force Assistance becomes more and more important not only in the post-conflict reconstruction process, but also in a more general way in the foreign policy of the United States. Looking into the experience of both Iraq and Lebanon, this monograph offers useful insights for future military assistance programs and reconstruction efforts. While current assistance programs are certainly of high quality in technical terms, this publication sheds light on the equally important, yet often overlooked social dimension. Elements such as ethnic composition, exclusion of politically compromised personnel, and the armed forces’ image in society will determine the military’s future success just as much as technical training. How to improve these aspects is explained in this analysis.


Rebuilding a foreign security force after a conflict requires more than technical know-how: it requires cultural and historical knowledge; an understanding of the conflict; and, most importantly, awareness of the place of the new military in post-conflict society. We need not only establish guidelines for what we can do, but must also realize the limits to this endeavor.

The following analysis summarizes the experiences of two different states that had to rebuild their armed forces in the aftermath of a conflict: Iraq and Lebanon. Both cases are untapped sources of experiences and lessons that provide insight into the region’s evolving military structure.

The monograph focuses more on structural and sociological aspects and less on technical ones. The main objectives are to outline the special situation of a military force in a post-conflict setting, to learn from two cases in order to avoid past mistakes, and to improve future performance in the rebuilding of foreign armed forces. The analysis follows five lines: the ethnic make-up of the armed forces, the recruitment process, the inclusion or exclusion of politically compromised personnel, the image of the military in society, and the professionalization of the new force. All five areas are especially delicate to handle in a volatile post-conflict environment.

Ethnic composition of the armed forces is always a challenge for multiethnic states and is especially difficult in a post-conflict situation. Where the composition of the military is based on access to wealth, position, and education, it might well become the symbol of a situation of discontent that is part of the conflict. Reversing this order is thus crucial if future conflicts are to be avoided. There are two ways to influence the military’s ethnic composition: as part of the recruitment process (which will be explained further in the monograph) and within the existing body. The latter is extremely difficult because it means interfering with an institution that resents political meddling and would entail either fast-tracking new personnel or dismissing others.

The challenge is less pronounced when it comes to entry into the armed forces. While applying a quota to the recruits might be undesirable, it is less so when combined with strong meritocratic principles. The remaining question then is the kind of quota—should it be ethnic, religious, or possibly regional? The former two bear the danger of institutionalizing religion or ethnicity within the military, yet by the same token, they ensure equal representation of all groups concerned. Rebalancing a military force according to ethnic affiliation might create intra-corps jealousy, distorted chains of commands following the ethnic rather than the official order, fragile cohesion, and possibly disobedience.

Both the Iraqi and the Lebanese cases highlight both the desire for ethnically-balanced armed forces in a post-conflict setting and the political attempts that frequently will forego moral concerns in order to achieve this goal. Thus, policymakers involved in rebuilding armed forces in a multiethnic setting should aim at a fair balance of all ethnic groups within the military and pay close attention to nondiscrimination for all groups.

Another delicate issue is the inclusion or exclusion of personnel who are deemed politically undesirable. This can include former regime members or militiamen. The problem here is that in the former case, elites usually carry the know-how, the intellectual capacity, and the institutional memory necessary to rebuild a state and its institutions. Excluding them from the rebuilding process can not only slow down the process, but also create a pool of frustrated personnel opposing the new state. The same is true for the disbandment of former militias. Rebuilding states thus have to choose between moral and practical considerations.

In addition to addressing the makeup of the new armed forces, it is also imperative to discuss the public image the new organization has or should have. Whether or not the armed forces will be able to serve society depends to a large extent on their relationship with it. An armed force despised and distrusted by the society it belongs to may have difficulties establishing cohesion and legitimacy; the Lebanese case supports that contention, whereas the Iraqi case provides contrary evidence.

This is related, though not exclusively, to the military’s professionalism, which determines the commitment, skill, and discipline of military personnel and is also considered an antidote to many problems that plague post-conflict countries, such as preventing the military’s intervention into politics, mutiny, and disintegration. In a post-conflict situation, military professionalism is thus not only desperately needed, but has usually been adversely affected by the conflict years, especially when sectarianism tested loyalties and cohesion.

This is true both for Iraq and Lebanon, but the two countries differ greatly when it comes to the reestablishment of professionalism. While the Lebanese armed forces had, and have, an ideology that inspires military professionalism called Shehabism (after its first Commander-in-Chief, Fuad Shehab), the Iraqi army not only emerged much more affected from decades of dictatorship, but also currently lacks such a glue to hold it all together; a national ideology and identity. Yet, an armed force that has no identity will have difficulty providing its men with a sense of duty to nation and country, creating cohesion and commitment. While skill and discipline might be trainable, the nontangible elements of military professionalism have to come from within the society and institution in order to be as powerful as needed.

Professionalization of a military force relies mostly on an inner logic that needs to be intrinsic; a sense of purpose, duty, and belonging to a nation that requires education, which must come from within. It is for this reason that the military is frequently associated with nationalism. An armed force that has no devotion, no sense of duty to its nation, will find it very difficult to stand together in times of war and conflict independently from the amount of training.

Rebuilding armed forces while ignoring these five dimensions means rebuilding it only partly; a military institution that represents only one part of society, that stands for sectarianism rather than unity, that lacks capacity and professionalism, and most importantly a vision of its mission, will never be able to truly fulfill its role.

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