UNITED NATIONS - When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) captured a treasure trove of U.S. weapons from fleeing Iraqi soldiers last month, one of the rebel leaders with a morbid sense of humour was quoted as saying rather sarcastically: “We hope the Americans would honour their agreements and service our helicopters.”
As fighter planes continue attacking ISIL targets, some of the U.S. airstrikes are, paradoxically, aimed at U.S.-made helicopters, Humvees, armoured personnel carriers and anti-aircraft artillery guns originally supplied to the Iraqi armed forces and currently deployed by the rebel group.
Not surprisingly, they are all under U.S. warranties for maintenance, repair and servicing.
The whole military exercise has degenerated into a political farce compounded by last week’s airdrops of weapons to Kurdish forces battling ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in Kobani, inside Syria.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that arms and ammunition parachuted from over 10,000 feet high above the skies – and known as Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPAD) – has not always reached the Kurds.
At least one of the malfunctioning parachutes, loaded with weapons, drifted into an area controlled by ISIL.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Security Studies Programme in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS recent reports suggest that weapons the U.S. military had dropped for the Kurds have been seized by ISIS forces.
“This left the U.S. military with the uncomfortable choice between allowing the ISIS forces to keep the weapons or trying to destroy the very weapons it had just dropped. They reportedly chose to destroy the weapons,” she said.
She said the U.S. military’s explanation of the operation was not reassuring.
Asked about U.S. weapons in the hands of ISIL, Rear Admiral John Kirby, spokesman for Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, told reporters Tuesday: “I do want to add, though, that we are very confident that the vast majority of the bundles did end up in the right hands. In fact, we’re only aware of one bundle that did not. Again, we’ll – if we can confirm that this one is or isn’t, we’ll certainly do that and let you know.”
“Surely, the world’s foremost military can and should hold itself to a far higher standard,” said Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told IPS, “Where does at least an important part of this story begin: the story of U.S. arms ultimately winding up with U.S. enemies?”
He said ISIS using American-supplied arms is not a new story, but one would have thought the U.S. might learn a lesson.
“Stop giving or selling arms to the world, but particularly to militaries or groups that ultimately will turn against the United States or who are too weak to hold on to the weaponry,” said Ratner, who is president of the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.
He pointed out former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor armed the mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan as a means of pushing back the then Soviet Union.
“Ideology trumping common sense and with dire results, including ultimately 9/11 and the continuing wars we face today,” he said.
Asked whether the ultimate victors were defence contractors, Ratner told IPS, “Yes, surely the arms industry plays a role in wanting to sell more and more arms, but so does ideology and a country, the United States, that still remains, as Martin Luther King said, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
According to the Washington-based Defence News, U.S arms sales to Iraq last year included 681 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and 40 truck-mounted launchers, Sentinel radars, three Hawk anti-aircraft batteries with 216 Hawk missiles, 50 Stryker infantry carriers, 12 helicopters, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of maintenance and logistical support for thousands of U.S.-made military vehicles.
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Additionally, Washington has also struck arms deals for the sale of Hellfire missiles, M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades and ammunition – all worth billions of dollars.
How much of this will wind up with ISIL forces is anybody’s guess.
Goldring told IPS the U.S. government, once again, appears to have been slow to learn important lessons about the unintended consequences of its actions in the Middle East.
Having made a significant mistake by invading Iraq in 2003, the U.S. government recently compounded its error by presuming that the Iraqi military would be able to defend the country, she noted. As the Iraqi military collapses, the weaponry the U.S. military left behind is now finding its way to Islamic State militants.
Too often, she said, the U.S. government sells or gives weapons away in an attempt to attain short-term political or military gains.
“A policy reassessment that gives much more weight to the long-term risks that accompany open-ended transfers of weapons around the world is long overdue,” said Goldring.
“In addition, as by far the world’s largest arms exporter, the United States has a special responsibility to refrain from transferring weapons when they are likely to be used to violate international human rights and humanitarian law.”
She said excessive weapons flows vastly increase the risk of blowback, in which U.S. weapons may be used against its own military personnel. In theory, military contractors could profit from the market for replacing the captured weapons.
“But in reality, even though the contractors might benefit financially, it could be a public relations disaster for manufacturers if their weapons were used against U.S. military personnel,” Goldring said.
It is likely, she said, that a press account would mention the supplier early on in any account of U.S. weapons being used against our own personnel.
Ratner pointed out the United States did likewise in Libya supporting and arming some of the very forces that attacked the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. The invasion of Iraq was also a war crime, killing untold numbers in that country and unleashing violence throughout the region.
“Selling arms to Iraq for American companies was as easy as selling candy to little kids – and billions in weapons were sold to a country that had become, because of U.S. actions, unstable at its core,” he said.
Ratner said the United States allowed itself to believe it was really training an army when it was in fact training a kleptocracy. “No country with any sense would have loaded up the Iraq army with such weaponry. And the expected happened.”
As the U.S. backed an “awful sectarian president” in Iraq, he said, violence increased and weapons were everywhere – almost free for the taking. “So, ISIS and presumably other factions and groups are now well armed with U.S. weapons,” Ratner said.
As for arming the Kurds, that will be interesting, he said. “Will those weapons be turned on Turkey and what will the outcome of that war be?” he asked.
“Until and unless the U.S. understands that the answer to the world’s problems is not war and that arming the world will lead the U.S. to continuous wars and kill millions of innocent, we will not see an end to an increasingly unstable world.”
As was said by the prophet Hosea: They that sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.