The Dangers of the American Weapons Trade

As we have learned over and over in recent years, there are all too many ways American military gear and weapons can end up in enemy hands. Sometimes the equipment is looted or captured, as when the Islamic State took thousands of U.S.-supplied Humvees—valued at a staggering $1 billion—from the Iraqi army in Mosul alone. Sometimes American-trained “moderate” rebels directly hand over their supplies to al Qaeda affiliates, as has happened in Syria.

And sometimes stuff just goes missing, as have literally hundreds of thousands of weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade and a half. As The New York Times recently reported, the Pentagon can only account for about a quarter of the small arms our government has transferred to allies of varying quality in these two countries. Much of the rest now fuels a vibrant black market offering arms to the Mideast’s least savory characters, ISIS very much included.

In the summer of 2014, for instance, more than 200,000 weapons, some 43 percent of the small arms the U.S. had sent to Afghanistan at that point, were improperly recorded, with missing or duplicate serial numbers in Pentagon records.

On the receiving side, the picture was even worse: The Afghan forces were found to have “no standardized or automated system” to keep track of the weapons they received. “There is a real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents,” said the report’s understated conclusion, “which will pose additional risks to US personnel, the ANSF, and Afghan civilians.” And how!

Before that, in 2009, weapons and ordnance collected from the bodies of Taliban insurgents were discovered to be of American provenance. Though some of the gear might have been obtained in battle, more likely it came from corrupt Afghan “allies.”

Even earlier, in 2007, we learned that 30 percent of the weapons sent to Iraqi Security Forces from June 2004 to December 2005 were similarly missing. Those 190,000 lost arms far outnumbered the 14,000 known to be missing the year beforeand have themselves been far outnumbered since.

Today that same dysfunction persists. We are arming our enemies in significant part thanks to poor record-keeping, a seemingly basic task which our government has yet managed to botch. The excuse given to the Times was a matter of speed: Bothering to record the serial numbers of the weapons we shipped abroad would have slowed down the war on terror, claimed a Pentagon spokesman. Because acting quickly was so important, he said, “lapses in accountability of some of the weapons transferred occurred.”

It strains credulity past breaking point to imagine taking the time for proper bookkeeping could have made our Mideast boondoggles any worse than they are today. On the contrary, keeping better track of these arms could only have made us more secure.

Despite years of evidence that reckless arms transfers contribute to regional chaos, the Obama administration is sending more powerful weapons for distribution in the Middle East. Meanwhile, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made statements in support of arming at least some subset of “friendly” fighting forces in Iraq and Syria, assuring the black market of a steady supply of American weaponry for the foreseeable future.

When this wasteful and dangerous cycle will finally end is anyone’s bet. At this rate, it’s long odds it will ever happen at all.

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