The recent furor over U.S.-supplied weapons missing in Iraq raises the question of whose hands U.S. weapons are finding their way into in other parts of the world.
Since the terrorist attacks on the United States six years ago today, the answer has been, increasingly: to human rights abusers and undemocratic regimes.
Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States began recruiting partners to assist in the myriad efforts necessary to stamp out international terrorist networks. In many cases, the United States chose to partner with countries repeatedly criticized by the State Department for human rights violations, lack of democracy and even past support of terrorism. Despite these concerns, the Bush administration has increased arms sales and military assistance to its so-called allies and waived restrictions on others in the intervening years - even going so far as to lift bans on arms exports to six countries immediately after 9/11.
Our ongoing analysis of 25 U.S. allies in the "war on terror" has consistently uncovered some troubling trends. U.S. arms sales authorized to these countries in the five years after 9/11 totaled four times more than in the five years prior to 9/11, and military assistance was 18 times higher. Not only is the funding for military training increasing to these countries, but they are also receiving an even greater percentage of funds allocated for U.S. military training.
At the same time, the State Department reported that "serious," "grave" or "significant" abuses were committed by the government or state security forces in more than half of the 25 countries we examined in 2006 alone.
Several of these countries, including Nepal, Thailand and Chad, have also experienced serious political upheaval during the past year.
In addition to the influx of traditional military training and heightened arms sales, the U.S. government has also created a host of programs through which these countries can receive the training and weapons to conduct counterterrorism operations, either on their own or in cooperation with the United States.
These programs - such as the Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program and the "train and equip" authority in the defense authorization bill - are funded out of Pentagon coffers, instead of the Foreign Operations budget. As such, these funds do not immediately fall under the State Department's restrictions that delineate the conditions under which traditional U.S. military assistance can be provided.
In short, controls and oversight of U.S. military assistance are being sidestepped in favor of short-term political interests.
Increasing arms exports and other military assistance to states with questionable records on human rights and political stability is shortsighted and potentially contributes to further instability and weapons proliferation.
As we have learned in Iraq, once weapons leave U.S. control, it is virtually impossible to guarantee how they will be used or by whom.
Although countries receiving the U.S. weapons and training have pledged to support U.S. goals and interests, weapons last longer than words and convenient political alliances. U.S. taxpayers need to know that not only are we paying - in the name of fighting terrorism - to arm serious human rights abusers and unstable governments now, but we could be paying to undermine our national security down the road.
Rachel Stohl is senior analyst and Rhea Myerscough is research assistant at the Center for Defense Information at the World Security Institute in Washington. Their e-mails are firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
© 2007 The Baltimore Sun