How to Arm Baghdad Without Also Arming Islamic State
More weapons sales mean greater risk
After Islamic State militants routed the Iraqi army in Mosul this summer, the United States turned on the tap. Now hundreds of millions of dollars worth of American weaponry are flowing into Iraq—all in a desperate bid to reequip Baghdad’s beleaguered forces and possibly save the country.
But with Islamic State frequently overrunning American-stocked depots and corrupt officials siphoning off new weapons, there’s a real risk that the U.S. effort to arm Baghdad could become self-defeating.
“Diversion” is the official term for weapons winding up in the wrong hands. Experts say there are measures to prevent it.
Lost, stolen and looted weaponry can be a big problem. Looting of Moammar Gadhafi’s vast weapons stockpiles during the 2011 uprising in Libya—and of Saddam Hussein’s arsenals in Iraq at the outset of the U.S. invasion in 2003—helped fuel insurgencies in those countries.
“These kinds of diversions tip the balance in battles, potentially,” says Stuart Bowen, the former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The standards must be much stricter with regard to management.”
The United States does have verification and end-use monitoring programs in place to assure the security of U.S. arms shipments to Iraq and other countries. The procedures include everything from registering the serial numbers of weapons America provides to Iraqi security forces to conducting on-site inspections of storage facilities.
But merely having procedures isn’t always enough. During the peak of the insurgency in Iraq, as U.S. officials struggled to both tamp down a brewing civil war while also raising an army out of the remnants of the Iraqi military, the Defense Department often failed to live up to the requirements of its own monitoring programs, according to SIGIR and the Government Accountability Office.
A 2006 SIGIR report showed that officials at Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq registered just 10,000 out of the 370,000 weapons the U.S. provided to Iraqi forces in the Small Arms Serialization Program—and also lost track of thousands of nine-millimeter pistols.
As the chaotic days of the mid-2000s waned into a relatively more stable period for Iraq, auditors noted that the Defense Department largely improved its accounting practices for weapons shipments.
But how those verification programs will fare today is an open question.
State Department officials declined to say whether and how verification mechanisms for future arms shipments to Iraq have changed in light of recent events.
“In Iraq as in in any partner nation, we also continue to vet all recipients of U.S. military assistance and have robust end-use monitoring processes in place to ensure as much as possible that such assistance is held securely and used appropriately,” a State Department representative told War Is Boring.
“The fact that battle losses can, do and will occur is taken into account when the State Department makes arms transfer decisions in Iraq and around the world,” the rep added.
Nicholas Marsh, a researcher at Peace Research Institute of Oslo who studies small arms and arms export controls, agrees that it’s almost impossible to totally prevent diversion to Islamic State.
But limiting the scope and quantity of weaponry the U.S. provides to Iraqi forces can help reduce the impact and likelihood of diversion, Marsh says.
“In terms of types, don’t introduce into the battlefield anything that ISIS doesn’t have already,” Marsh says. “That way capture by IS won’t qualitatively enhance its military capabilities. In terms of quantity, be careful to supply forces opposed to IS with what they need, and don’t supply excessive quantities of arms and ammunition.”
But there’s still only so much the U.S. can do in the face of Iraqi corruption and organizational dysfunction, particularly with the relatively smaller number of American personnel in Iraq these days.
Rampant corruption complicates Baghdad’s efforts to track new weaponry. Consider that there may be as many as 50,000 “ghost” or no-show soldiers collecting Iraqi military paychecks. Iraqi officials told The New York Times that theft and sale of the military’s weapons is rampant.
“If you’ve got 50,000 ghost soldiers, you’ve got the ghosting of these weapons, as well,” Bowen says.
Bowen advises that the U.S. should push for Baghdad to adopt American accounting systems for its weapons, in order to capitalize on Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s recent efforts to reform the military and root out corruption.
Nonetheless, there are limits to what even a motivated prime minister can achieve against endemic corruption, particularly in the short term. In light of that, Bowen recommends that United States send more personnel to keep track of arms sales on the Iraqis’ behalf.
But Bowen is pessimistic. “We have not learned our lessons over the last 10 years sufficiently with regard to the planning, management, execution and oversight of stabilization and reconstruction operations,” he says.
And that could mean that many of the weapons Washington sends to Iraq to help save the country … could actually end up endangering it.