Saturday, January 19, 2008

Arming the adversary

There’s an underexplored facet of the Iraq war that may be the best reason for a prudent, methodical exit from the country, a reason to leave that’s at once compelling and ironic: Glock by Glock, one rocket-propelled grenade after another, our arsenal is being used to supply and fortify the very insurgency we’re presumably there to defeat.

The United States has, conservatively, spent $500 billion to date in the prosecution of the Iraq war. Billions more are already committed. The theoretically endless supply of weapons, vehicles and ammunition already ferried into Iraq, and the supplies that are in the pipeline, will increase the same vehicles, weapons and ammunition our troops are facing now and will confront in the future — weapons, vehicles and ammunition now in the hands of the insurgents.

Far-fetched? Over the top? It’s not even new. In August 2007 NPR’s “All Things Considered” examined the growing gun trade in the region, reporting that U.S. weapons donated to the Iraqi police were turning up on the black market in Turkey.

“In the border town of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, officers unwrapped 18 Austrian-made Glock pistols and laid them on a table,” NPR’s Ivan Watson reported. “Mardin Police Chief Ismet Tasan said the guns were originally donated by the U.S. military to the Iraqi police. The pistols were later sold to arms dealers in northern Iraq for more than $1,500 apiece and then smuggled to Turkey, where they can be resold for prices as high as $5,000. ...”

“Turkish officials say this seizure is just the tip of the iceberg.”

That may be a gem of an understatement. Watson reported that “a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report … found [that] the Department of Defense cannot account for 190,000 pistols and rifles that were distributed to Iraqi security forces during the first two years of the U.S. occupation.”

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The scale gets bigger still. The Government Accountability Office reported in August 2007 that the Defense Department and U.S. forces on the ground could not account for another 135,000 pieces of body armor, and 115,000 helmets issued to Iraqi forces between June 2004 and September 2005.

"They really have no idea where they are," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, told Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post in August 2007. "It likely means that the United States is unintentionally providing weapons to bad actors."

Like we said, it’s obviously nothing new, but it’s getting worse. In a December 2007 exclusive, CBS News’ Laura Strickler reported not on the weapons and ammunition missing, but about the vehicles that were unaccounted for. “Tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, crates of machine guns and rocket propelled grenades are just a sampling of more than $1 billion in unaccounted for military equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces, according to a new report issued ... by the Pentagon Inspector General.”

And researchers at the Center for American Progress gave a breakdown of some heavyweight military machinery, some of which may or may not have been included in the CBS News/Pentagon report.

The Center reported that the United States military in Iraq has lost 20 Abrams M1 tanks, 55 Bradley fighting vehicles, 250 Humvees, 20 M113 armored personnel carriers and 109 helicopters. There are standing armies whose whole, gross military budgets are less than the cost of what we’ve lost track of.

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You shudder to think of how much of this is on the black market in the region. We can’t help but wonder if somewhere in Iraq there’s a real-life version of Milo Minderbinder, the avaricious U.S. Air Corps mess officer turned black market war profiteer in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a self-made Halliburton who sold shares in himself and commandeered American war materiel for sale on the black market around the world.

But we really fear the prospect of some new well-armed “bad actor,” another maverick extremist with a vendetta against the United States and the hardware — from small arms to tanks to helicopters — to give that vendetta teeth.

We’ve spent almost half a trillion dollars. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank and co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, has suggested the total Iraq war costs will be between $1 trillion (a conservative assessment) and $2 trillion in a moderate scenario.

The war’s costing us our future’s future, but it might be cheap against another metric: The only thing ultimately more expensive than arming your army is arming your adversary.
Image credits: Glock: Reed Williams (public domain). Armed Marines: Lance Cpl. Miguel A. Carrasco Jr., USMC (public domain). Abrams tank: Defense Department (public domain).

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